Harlem torn between old and new

Lisa Van Dusen -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:57 PM ET

HARLEM, N.Y. - Creeping along Harlem's Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. in the back seat of a loudspeaker tricked-out Hillarymobile, it was hard not to wonder what Malcolm X might make of his legendary lawyer, Percy Sutton, pimping from the shotgun seat for a blue-eyed former First Lady.

"Please come out to vote," Sutton's voice crackled into the street. "We don't know the other person in this election - we've never met him," Sutton, 87, read from his lap. "But we know Senator Clinton and her husband, Bill, who has an office on 125th Street!"

Sutton, Congressman Charles Rangel and the dwindling Harlem Clubhouse Democratic power brokers represented the establishment side of the race that stirred up Harlem on this wet, gray Super Tuesday. The "other person in this election" was Senator Barack Obama.

All day, as Harlem voters chose between "their" powerful white female Senator and the most electable black presidential candidate in U.S. history, arguments came down to not just experience versus change, but reason versus passion, black versus white and hope versus fear.

Marvlin Hunter, a 73-year-old retired food services director who had just voted at PS 175, chose Obama despite unease over his safety.

"I loved President Kennedy. They shot him and the same thing could happen to Obama," said Hunter, her eyes tearing up. "But I came up through Jim Crow and I know it makes no difference where you sit or where I sit. He knows how to move past what still divides us."

Clinton has had support from the Harlem political establishment, mostly through Rangel, since her election as senator from New York in 2000. It solidified in 2001 when Bill Clinton, who'd been famously anointed "America's first black president" by author Toni Morrison, hung his post-presidential shingle out on 125th St., precipitating a real-estate boom that eventually prompted a minor anti-gentrification backlash.

Recently, Clinton wrapped up endorsements from the influential, black-owned Amsterdam News and the Rev. Calvin O. Butts, powerful head of the landmark Abyssinian Baptist Church.

But that support came in the wake of controversial statements from the Clintons, including her comments about Martin Luther King's role in the Civil Rights movement and his musings about black voters in South Carolina, that angered many Democrats, especially African-Americans. His snoozing through a King Day sermon didn't help.

"Bill Clinton lost credibility with black people," Harlem community activist Samuel Roberts, 57, said after voting for Obama. "It's time for us to grow up and cross the road by ourselves."

In the past week, the Amsterdam News ran an editorial re-explaining its original endorsement and Charles Rangels' wife, Alma, endorsed Obama. Toni Morrison endorsed Obama on Jan. 28.

Rev. Dino Woodard, Calvin Butts' assistant pastor, voted for Obama. "It felt great to vote for him," Woodard said between greeting parishioners outside his polling station. "Hillary's done great things and her husband was a great president. But this is different."

Not for Tekima Berlack. "I'm through with dreamin'," the 66-year-old retired florist vented as she dragged two Hillary signs along 138th Street. "We need someone who can work the system, so we can get money in our pockets and jobs in our community."

Berlack paused to help extinguish a cardboard box full of lit candles that had, predictably, burst into flames in front of the West Harlem Independent Democratic Club.

"Hillary will get in and Bubba will be right there," she resumed, "and they'll keep the neocons out. Leave the White House to the white people. America is not ready to elect a black man as president."

In the Obama campaign office on Malcolm X Blvd., there is a sign that reads "war room" scrawled in black Sharpie. The word "war" is crossed out in red and "hope" is scrawled above it. Until a winner emerges from this race, both may be equally apt.


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