ATLANTA (Reuters) - If Barack Obama wins November’s election and becomes the first black president in U.S. history, will an older generation of civil rights leaders go out of business?
On the surface, this might be expected as political inclusion has been a key goal of the civil rights movement for half a century, back to a time when millions of black Americans in the South could not vote.
But black leaders argue that problems like discrimination, police brutality and unfairness in the legal system are still rife and they remain committed to fighting them.
Beyond that, many African-Americans lag behind the overall population in social standards, like health, education, income and employment, and protest remains an effective way to bring change, as it was during the civil rights heyday, they say.
Although blacks account for around 12 percent of the U.S. population, 44 percent of all prisoners in the United States are black, according to U.S. census data, and the number of blacks in prison has quadrupled since 1980.
The income of an average black family is 58 percent of that of an average white family’s, according to a 2007 study.
The issue of the different roles played by Obama, who is the Democratic presidential candidate, and civil rights leaders came into focus this month after comments by veteran black campaigner Jesse Jackson on Obama.
Jackson, 66, said Obama, 46, was “talking down to black people” and said he wanted to cut the Illinois senator’s “nuts” off. He quickly apologized for the crude remark, which was recorded in a TV studio without his knowledge.
He was reacting to a speech in which Obama said government plans to improve black children’s lives would make no difference unless African-American parents took greater personal responsibility for raising children.
Some commentators suggested that Jackson, who himself ran for president in 1984 and 1988, was jealous of the younger Obama and saw his power slipping away.
Jackson supports Obama’s campaign and has said decades of civil rights activity stretching back to a 1954 Supreme Court decision had made the Illinois senator’s current White House bid possible.
“It has taken 54 years of plowing up the soil to make this (Obama’s bid) happen. It’s the last lap of a marathon,” Jackson said in an interview. “A new and more mature America is expressing itself.”
Obama is the latest example of a dual track among black political leaders in which protesters and elected or appointed black officials used different approaches to work for the same ends, said New York-based civil rights activist Al Sharpton.
The most famous precedents were in the 1960s when Thurgood Marshall, the nation’s first black Supreme Court justice, and Congressman Adam Clayton Powell helped further the aims of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, he said.
“In every generation you have those who fight on the outside to empower those on the inside, so the combination helps the people,” Sharpton, 53, said in an interview.
“His (Obama’s) rise helps the civil rights agenda of our generation,” said Sharpton whose nationally syndicated radio program has boosted his influence among African-Americans.
The issues that concern blacks have shifted from generation to generation. Sharpton, 53, said he had more in common with Obama and other elected black politicians such as Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and New York Gov. David Paterson because they were all similar in age.
Older civil rights leaders like Jackson had their roots in the South but a new generation was more in tune with issues such as corporate discrimination, he said.
Several black Americans said there was still a role for protest even if Obama were president. They cited a rally last September in Jena, Louisiana, as evidence that young people had not lost their appetite to protest.
Tens of thousands attended the rally in support of six black teenagers accused over the beating of a white schoolmate.
“The movement is not over (because of Obama),” said Carmella Sease, a recent graduate of Emory University in Atlanta. “There are still changes that need to be made for the black community.”
Editing by Jim Loney and David Storey