A new breed of black politicians has emerged, led by the likes of Barack Obama and Herman Cain.

Blacks first held political power in the US in the decade after the Civil War.They were exclusively Republicans from the South.  However, starting from 1876, “Jim Crow” laws systematically disenfranchised blacks in the South so that they held no political power until 1928, when Oscar DePriest was elected to the House of Representatives.

DePriest was an early civil rights activist. Since his election to the House, the vast majority of black politicians have been born out of the civil rights movement. The most prominent modern example of this breed of black political figure is the Reverend Al Sharpton.

In 2004, this all began to change with Barack Obama’s victory in the Democratic primary of the US Senate seat of Illinois. Obama did touch on civil rights issues from time to time, but it didn’t even come close to defining him. Instead, his main issue early in his political career was social justice for the poor.

Later that year, he delivered the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention that gave birth to his presidential aspirations and won him a national following.  His speech had little to do with his blackness; when he touched on his Kenyan father, it was more about how the latter saw America as “a beacon of freedom and opportunity to so many who had come before him.”

The focus, instead, was on the working middle class, the American dream, and the need for Americans to come together. It was this same message that got him elected to the US presidential office a few years later.

Obama succeeded on the national stage while other black candidates (like Sharpton, who ran for president in 2004; and Rev. Jesse Jackson earlier) failed because he appealed to voters of all colors on issues that mattered to all Americans. 

His success paved the way for a new breed black politicians who aren’t defined by their race. 

The most striking example is perhaps Herman Cain, a 65-year-old Tea Party favorite who is running for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.

Cain’s platform has nothing to do with his race and civil rights – in fact, he uses his race in the opposite way from civil rights-infused black politicians.

He once mockingly said: “people who oppose Obama are said to be racists, so I guess I’m a racist!”

Cain’s rallying cry is lowering taxes and the Tea Party loves it; they have embraced this black politician because his economic philosophy resonates with them and his highly successful business career speaks volumes. 

Ironically, the success of non-civil rights black politicians like Obama and Cain represents a major milestone for the status of blacks in America because black politicians no longer have to be defined by their race. They are not “judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” (and their stances on issues), in the famous words from Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream speech.