Civil rights leader John Lewis dropped his support for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential bid Wednesday in favor of Barack Obama.
Lewis, a Democratic congressman from Atlanta, is the most prominent black leader to defect from Clinton’s campaign in the face of near-unanimous black support for Obama in recent voting. He also is a superdelegate who gets a vote at this summer’s national convention in Denver.
In a written statement, Lewis said the Illinois senator’s campaign “represents the beginning of a new movement in American political history” and that he wants “to be on the side of the people.”
“After taking some time for serious reflection on this issue, I have decided that when I cast my vote as a superdelegate at the Democratic convention, it is my duty . . . to express the will of the people,” the statement said.
Lewis’ endorsement had been a coveted prize thanks to his standing as one of the most prominent civil rights leaders of the 1960s.
“John Lewis is an American hero and a giant of the civil rights movement, and I am deeply honored to have his support,” Obama said in a statement.
Clinton was questioned about Lewis during an interview with Houston television station KTRK on Wednesday.
“I understand he’s been under tremendous pressure,” the New York senator said. “He’s been my friend. He will always be my friend. At the end of the day it’s not about who is supporting us, it’s about what we’re presenting, what our positions are, what our experiences and qualifications are, and I think that voters are going to decide.”
Lewis’ announcement came on the same day as another superdelegate, Sen. Byron L. Dorgan of North Dakota, endorsed Obama, citing the presidential hopeful’s record on trade.
Dorgan said Obama has supported key trade issues.
“He and I feel the same way,” Dorgan said. “We both believe in trade and plenty of it. We just insist it that it be fair to our country -- the rules be fair.”
The North American Free Trade Agreement is unpopular with blue-collar workers whose votes are considered crucial in the Democratic primary Tuesday in Ohio.
Lewis announced his Clinton endorsement in October and has appeared on the New York senator’s behalf on television and at events across the country.
At one point in the campaign, Lewis accused Obama supporters of trying to fan the flames of race against Clinton.
Clinton has frequently cited Lewis’ support in trying to establish her credentials among minority voters, saying she saw her campaign as a continuation of his work.
But Lewis came under intense pressure to get behind Obama after his constituents supported the Illinois senator roughly 3 to 1 in Georgia’s Feb. 5 primary, as did about 90% of black voters statewide, according to exit polls.
Obama’s support among black voters nationwide mirrors Lewis’ Georgia district.
His change of heart follows a similar move by Rep. David Scott, a black Democrat who represents a neighboring district.
The decision also comes a week after the Rev. Markel Hutchins, a young Atlanta minister, announced he would challenge Lewis in the Democratic congressional primary this summer.
Hutchins, 30, has seized on Lewis’ reversal in his presidential endorsement as evidence that the 68-year-old congressman is out of touch with his constituents.
“Today’s announcement by Representative Lewis was clearly prompted by political expediency,” Hutchins said Wednesday. “It is time for a change. It is time to send somebody to Congress who is actually willing to represent the district.”
This month, Lewis’ office disputed media reports that he said he would switch candidates, or was at least reconsidering. But until Wednesday, the congressman had refused to answer questions clarifying his position.
Lewis said Wednesday afternoon that he had called former President Clinton and Sen. Clinton but had not reached them to tell them of his decision.