With guests like Chelsea Clinton and James Carville, the annual meeting of the Young Democrats of North Carolina in Research Triangle Park a month ago didn't lack for star power. But the real sheen came from the turnout—600 paid, a record in recent memory, plus hordes of candidates and campaign staffers for nearly every office on the May 6 Democratic primary ballot. The success of the event reflected on the organizing hosts, three up-and-coming African-American men: Durham's Zack Hawkins, 28, chair of the state Young Democrats; and Jeremy Collins, 27, and Terence Morrison, 23, chairs respectively of the Durham and Wake County YD chapters.
A fourth unofficial host was also working the halls, his trademark smile at high-amperage: State Rep. Ty Harrell, a Raleigh Democrat who, at 38, is just three years removed from his own YD days. Harrell won his House seat two years ago by unseating a Republican incumbent, Russell Capps, in a district that is GOP-leaning and 90 percent white. Thus, "in a micro way," he said, his victory presaged what Barack Obama is doing now on a national level: winning over voters on the basis of his talents and regardless of his skin color, or theirs.
In fact, when Obama called to congratulate Harrell a few weeks after he won, Harrell said, they discussed the importance of sticking to the issues—health care, education—and framing them in universal rather than black-white terms. No surprise, then, that Harrell endorsed Obama for president more than a year ago, the first elected official in North Carolina to do.
Harrell's also served as political mentor to Hawkins, Collins, Morrison and other leaders whom he views as the vanguard of a youth movement in the ranks of the state's African-American Democrats. It's a movement that likewise mirrors a national phenomenon—one long overdue, Harrell said pointedly, and the others agree.
Strikingly, in separate interviews each of the four men talked about struggling against the "Old Guard," using that term to refer—as it does across the country—to the civil rights generation of Democratic black leaders that continues to cling to its power.
"That's something, as a young person, that you have to fight against, plain and simple," Hawkins said. Martin Luther King Jr. was 26 when he was tapped to lead the Civil Rights movement, he noted. Now Obama "has brought to the forefront that it's time for a new generation of leadership."
Harrell was more outspoken about how the "Old Guard" dissed him when he was starting his political career. "My view is, power is not gained by hoarding it, it's gained by sharing it," he said. "[But] if the Old Guard is afraid to reach back and mentor the next generation that wants to be in this realm of electoral politics ... that younger generation is going to elbow them in the face, and they're going to find themselves on the sideline as the next generation takes their seats away."
Zack Hawkins grew up in the tiny town of Chocowinity, in Beaufort County, where his grandmother and mother were school board members, church was central, and his parents always said, "Doing the right thing is the right thing to do." He caught a break when a high school science teacher plugged him into biology, which helped him land an internship at an environmental institute in RTP. He got another break in 2000 when Democrats reached out to the HBCUs—historically black colleges and universities—while he was the vice president of student government at Elizabeth City State University.
Twice bitten, he landed in Durham where he earned his master's degree in biology at N.C. Central University and a "Ph.D. in politics" by working on campaigns for U.S. Rep. David Price and U.S. Senate candidate Erskine Bowles. Four years ago, he was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention, where he heard Obama's stunning keynote address and felt he was "in the moment" of history.
This election season, Hawkins is helping Durham district attorney candidate Tracey Cline's campaign, when he's not teaching science at Durham Southern High School. That's where he's doing his most important work these days, teaching his students—primarily low-income blacks and Hispanics—that racial and gender barriers to success are being obliterated as a consequence of social change and the undeniable talents of Obama and Hillary Clinton. Hawkins is determined to be a role model—he always wears a suit and tie to school—and tries to drive home his message: It only matters what you can do, not who you are, or what color you are.
The challenge, Hawkins said, is that human beings are "virtually programmed" to think in categories, and for many who grew up in the segregated South, especially older blacks, it's impossible not to see everything in black-white terms. When Hawkins was growing up, a staple kitchen-table topic was whether the country would ever elect a black or woman president. His students have heard the same conversations and the same answer: No time soon.
Thus, a year ago they thought Obama had no chance to be elected—because their parents and grandparents couldn't imagine it, they couldn't, either. But now, he said, his students feel the way he does: They're "living history," and racial and gender barriers are falling fast.
"We can clearly see now," he said, "that the world has no boundaries for success, where 30, 40 years ago there was every boundary."
Jeremy Collins has a different lesson for the young folks flocking to his YD meetings and the Obama campaign. "OK, you registered to vote, and you voted for Obama. What's next?" he asks them. He wants them to consider why they voted for Obama, which for most translates to a pressing issue or community need that they think Obama's election can address.
"Then learn the issue," Collins tells them. "As Al Sharpton said, the point isn't party ideals, it's social ideals. And the Democratic Party is a vehicle to make life better for the next generation, not an end in itself."
Collins grew up in rural Martin County, where most folks struggled to make ends meet and had little time to consider how the world should change. But Collins was thinking about it from the time he arrived at UNC-Chapel Hill. By his junior year, he had decided against law school and a potentially lucrative career in favor of "giving back"—working in public service and engaging others in his generation in the cause of social justice. He threw himself into the issue of capital punishment, signing on after graduation as an organizer with People of Faith Against the Death Penalty. After a year as an investigator for the Orange County Public Defender's office, he became coordinator for the N.C. Coalition for a Moratorium, an umbrella group fighting against the reinstatement of executions.
"In our hearts," he said of himself and his fellow YD leaders, "we're organizers. We feel like if we can engage you on the issues, we can bring you to the table."
Collins sees a "great disconnect" between African-American communities and the meat of government and politics. The disengagement started sometime in the '70s, for reasons he said he doesn't fully understand, and was still evident six years ago when he and Hawkins were graduating from college. In part, he thinks, it was the conservatism of the Reagan-Bush era, which caused people to reject government as an answer to social needs. Partly it was the Old Guard, who weren't grooming the next generation of African-American leaders.
Regardless, there was an obvious need for young, ambitious black political organizers who knew their way around computers, PDAs, and the strategic collection and use of information.
"I think the three of us recognized that there was a place for us, and we belonged there, and that's what we decided to do," Collins said.
From the start, Collins' organizing has straddled the lines between black and white, young and old. In his anti-death penalty work, he said, he is often the only one "walking in these shoes" as a young black in a room of older whites. On the other hand, in African-American communities, he feels resistance from older blacks who "may feel like [I'm] walking out of place" because of his youth.
Nonetheless, Collins is undaunted. "I love this work," he said without hesitation. "This is my way of giving public service."
Terence Morrison is the youngster of the group, but he has loads of personality and doesn't lack for moxie. For example, he's an electrical engineer with a degree from N.C. A&T University, but the company that hired him out of college—a national consulting firm, CRB—didn't recruit at historically black A&T. So Morrison drove to a job fair at N.C. State and was recruited there. Within weeks after he started, he asked the firm's managing partner in North Carolina to lunch, showed him a plan for hiring talented minorities at A&T, N.C. Central University and other historically black schools, and the boss said, "Let's do it."
Within a year, two more HBCU grads were hired.
"Shirley Chisholm said you always have to be willing to challenge the status quo," Morrison said. "You just have to challenge and challenge and challenge, and I'm willing to do that."
Unlike his Durham counterparts, Morrison said he's been helped by a variety of mentors: Harrell and Courtney Crowder, a Raleigh advertising executive and the first African-American chair of the state YDs when he was elected in 2003; State Rep. Grier Martin, who's white, and Wake Commissioner Lindy Brown, who's black, are among those who've taken him under their wings, he said.
None of his mentors qualify as Old Guard. But he hasn't encountered resistance from older leaders, either, perhaps because he never expected the help.
"I always thought of politics as dog-eat-dog," Morrison said. "I didn't know there were people like that who would try to bring along the next generation."
Morrison is trying to supply that kind of positive reinforcement as guardian ad litem for several troubled kids, ages 11-15, living in group homes. The younger ones are mostly reachable, he said, despite having little or no family support. The older ones just tell him, "Whatever."
All the more reason, he believes, why we need more young black leaders in every profession, and why the ones we have must work harder at "reaching back" to the children who need them.
In that regard, Obama helps, he said. Young people of all colors and descriptions are tuning into the campaign, the issues and social needs. "It's hot," Morrison said. "Don't tell my girlfriend, but politics is sexy right now."
These Young Democrats could run for office some day. Morrison said he likely will, but not soon. Hawkins said he might, but his political career must fit with his work and family life. Ditto for Collins, who added that he'd rather be true to his issues than make the compromises that holding office may require.
Harrell will defend his seat for the first time in November. By defeating Capps two years ago, Harrell became the youngest member of the Legislative Black Caucus by almost 20 years—and one of just two members (Sen. Tony Foriest, D-Alamance, is the other) elected from predominantly white districts.
The remaining caucus members represent districts drawn either with majority-black or majority-black and Democratic voting populations, and many of them qualify as "Old Guard": State Rep. Mickey Michaux of Durham turns 78 this year, and state Sen. Vernon Malone of Wake County turns 76.
They're part of the generation that marched with Dr. King, Harrell said, "the great generation that paved the road before I got here." But too many of them, he continued, have stopped reaching back to mentor the next generations. And their successors are desperately needed as role models for black youth who drop out of school and commit crimes at rates far above their proportion of the population.
Obama's success is a tremendous boon to young black leaders, Harrell said. But many more, and even younger, ones are needed too. "The next generation of leaders is what I'm about, and hopefully I'm a springboard for others."
Harrell can credit state Rep. Dan Blue, his 59-year-old Raleigh colleague, for helping him, and the late Ed Smith, long a black Democratic organizer in Raleigh. But otherwise, Harrell said, his mentors have been white.
On the other hand, Lavonia Allison, chair of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, dismissed him, he said, with a haughty "Am I supposed to know you?" when he returned to Raleigh in 2001 from Washington, where he'd earned a graduate degree and run his own political consulting firm. "I was thinking, You don't need to know me. But you will know me," Harrell recalled.
Allison did not return a call from the Indy seeking comment; nor did Michaux or Malone.
Blue said he thinks Harrell's point is exaggerated, and that older black leaders will make room for talented newcomers. Marshall Harvey, the 62-year-old chair of the African-American caucus of the Wake Democratic party, however, agreed with Harrell that it's time for new blood. "We need fresh energy and fresh ideas," he said, and he's all for bringing it in. Otherwise, he quipped, "we could all die."
Harrell's own history is strangely evocative of Obama's. Obama's mother was white. Harrell, who grew up in North Raleigh in the historically black Jeffreys Grove neighborhood, was adopted by a black father and biracial mother who was very light-skinned, and died, like Obama's mother, in her 50s. Harrell's wife is white. "I'm the last one to cry racism about anything with the melting pot I have for a family," he said.
Harrell did, he said, "have a foot in one world and a foot in another" growing up, "not black enough" in some circles, "too black" in others. But he took his mother's good advice to "adjust my attitude," and always to make a good first impression. Thus, he usually dresses in a jacket and bow-tie (his "Ty"). And he always wears a smile.
He's also willing to reach across party lines and break with the Democrats—even the black caucus. For example, he was among the first to call for disgraced black legislator Thomas Wright's resignation for illegally pocketing contributions to a nonprofit group, and the first to say that the black caucus must disclose the finances of its own foundation.
The point is, Harrell said, the day has come when black Democrats can win over white voters based on what they stand for and what they can accomplish. Just look at Obama: When he's elected president, Harrell said, "the discussion will finally shift from 'Can he?' to 'How will he do it?'"