John Lewis and Hillary Clinton's problem with millenials

Credit: Jim Galloway

Credit: Jim Galloway

Just twelve hours or so after Bernie Sanders left Morehouse College and the 4,500 supporters who gathered to hear him, U.S. Rep. John Lewis dropped by the state Capitol for a morning visit on Wednesday.

The Georgia congressman was asked about the Democratic presidential candidate’s promise of free college tuition to a generation of voters financially hamstrung by student loans.

“I think it’s the wrong message to send to any group. There’s not anything free in America,” Lewis told a scrum of reporters. “We all have to pay for something. Education is not free. Health care is not free. Food is not free. Water is not free. I think it’s very misleading to say to the American people, we’re going to give you something free.”

Lewis, who has spent much of the last week at the side of his preferred candidate, Hillary Clinton, said Americans, and especially young people, need to recognize economic reality. “Hard work never killed anybody, child,” the congressman said, quoting his own Alabama mother.

On one hand, it was a stern message that probably ought to have been leavened with Clinton’s own emphasis on “no-debt tuition.” On the other, it came from a man whom – Clinton surely hopes – still carries great weight on college campuses, and perhaps can stem the bleeding.

Lewis is, after all, the only superhero/member of Congress with his own comic book. Er, graphic novel. "March," which documents Lewis' experience as a young student activist in the Civil Rights movement, has sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and is required reading on many campuses.

There is no doubt that Hillary Clinton, the former first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state, is afflicted with a generational divide when it comes to white voters. Iowa and New Hampshire showed millennials flocking to Sanders in droves. The question in Georgia and elsewhere in the South is whether young African-Americans feel the same.

An NBC News/Survey Monkey poll released this week indicated that, nationally, black millennial Democrats – those between the ages of 18 and 34 — support Clinton by a wide margin, 64 percent to 25 percent. That roughly mirrors the 73 to 16 percent edge that older black voters give her.

But on Tuesday, it was hard to miss the army of “Feel the Bern” T-shirts sported on the Morehouse College campus, many underneath the suit coats preferred by male students.

Tod Etheredge, a senior majoring in political science and minoring in Chinese studies, has questions about Sanders’ foreign policy positions, but sees a shift. “Hillary represents, for many African-Americans, more of the same. We voted for [President Barack] Obama and we love Obama, but we feel he didn’t support our policies,” Etheredge said.

One of his professors likewise senses something. “There’s a serious generational thing going on here. Obama beat Hillary in 2008 in terms of that demographic,” said Gregory Hall, chairman of the Morehouse political science department. “I would have expected that, after 2008, she would have had that figured out. But it’s not there. Bernie is seizing it.”

Hall doesn’t view John Lewis, 75, as someone who can bridge the gap for Clinton all by himself. “He’s effective in measured ways,” the professor said. “For establishment folks, he’s great, and Hillary needs that. But she needs more of the youth movement – the younger politicians, and students, obviously.”

Even with his own students, Hall finds it hard for them to relate to anything that happened in the early 1990s – never mind the 1960s. And it’s not just Lewis. His students barely recognize Harry Belafonte, the actor/singer, who has endorsed Bernie Sanders. “They’ve seen him in black-and-white movies,” Hall said.

Yet Andrew Aydin argues that Lewis’ history indeed gives him more pull with students. Aydin is a Lewis congressional staffer and co-author of the “March” graphic novel series. “It resonates because John Lewis has a story so similar to what so many of them are going through now – growing up poor, frustrated by the system that told them to wait and to be patient,” Aydin said.

Perhaps this is what is so striking about a millennial, post-Ferguson split among African-American voters. The young people who insist they are tired of waiting, in many cases, are addressing elders who were making the same argument a generation ago. Lewis included.

State Rep. LaDawn Jones, D-Atlanta, a 30-something attorney, is one of the more prominent members of the Sanders campaign in Georgia. She speaks of a generational shift that needs to happen, but hasn’t.

“Not passing the baton is harmful to the communities that need strong leadership,” Jones said. “In the black community in particular, it took so long for us to attain power, we don’t know what that looks like. We don’t know what generational change in leadership looks like. We don’t know what it looks like to pass the torch.”

In some cases, the torch simply refuses to blink out. John Lewis will be speaking at 3 p.m. Thursday at Brenau University in Gainesville. The event will be streamed live. The congressman intends to stick around afterward and sign copies of his graphic novel.