New York has become a battleground in the Democratic presidential race [Reuters]

The New York district of Harlem was once known as the capital of black America and played a central role in the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s.

But on Super Tuesday Harlem is at the centre of a new battle - one pitting Hillary Clinton's Democratic party machine against the rising challenge of party rival Barack Obama.

Harlem voices

Al Jazeera speaks to voters in the district

The polls have put Clinton ahead in her "home" state, but Obama hopes to win New York City's Democratic nominating delegates on the strength of his growing support among New York's African-American community.

At Obama's Harlem headquarters on Malcolm X Boulevard, a small but determined group of volunteers are deciding which polling booths to target next.

The office is small, consisting of a just few desks and some tattered-looking laptops, a sign that none of the $32 million that Obama raised in January has been directed to Harlem and that, with Clinton holding on to her lead in New York, the money is better spent elsewhere.


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But people here feel like they are part of something special, a grassroots political movement, and the name of civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King Jr is often invoked when people speak about Obama.

Charlene Hines, who moved to Harlem five years ago from Pittsburgh and is volunteering for the Obama campaign at different locations across New York today, sums up the feeling.

"No-one else has had this vision apart from Martin Luther King," she says.

"He puts into action the compassion that Martin Luther King had and has the same courage.

"He will become president."

Attracting the young

But despite the optimism they face a tough battle to defeat Clinton, who has the the backing of the Democrat political machine in New York.

In Harlem, of all places in New York, race plays an important part

African-American leaders in Harlem have weighed in on the side of the Clinton camp, including Calvin Butts, the pastor of the popular Abyssinian Baptist Church, and Charlie Rangel, Harlem's congressman since 1970.

She also has the support of almost two dozen New York trade unions - including the teachers union. They provide important backing in a city where more than one in four adults is a union member.

R. L'Heureux Lewis, assistant professor of sociology at the City College of New York, a university on the edge of Harlem, says that while Clinton has won the support of the African-American middle class in New York, Obama has built his following among the young.

"People who are not part of key Harlem institutions are attracted to the energy on the streets surrounding Obama," he says.

"In Harlem, of all places in New York, race plays an important part. And one of the things that might surprise many people from outside is that Barack Obama has had to pass the test of being someone who cares and is concerned about black interests."

The race issue

African-American New Yorkers have, however, voiced fears about whether Obama can break down enough of the long-standing racial barriers in the US to be elected president, even if he wins the Democratic nomination.

Some African-American voters wonder if
Obama can break down racial barriers

Bill Clinton, who was famously described as America's first black president, remains popular here, particularly in Harlem where he opened an office in 2001.

The former US president has maintained that support despite a row erupting over his alleged use of the race issue in the campaign, when he cited the unsuccessful previous presidential campaigns by the Reverend Jesse Jackson.

Critics said it was an attempt to discredit Obama's chances of election to the White House.

Others have argued that Hillary Clinton is better placed to get things done in what remains a predominantly white US power structure.

However Lewis rejects such claims.

"Those are people who are reacting to the Clinton name and the Clinton trademark," he says.

Segregated history

Others say the issue goes deeper, way beyond the 2008 presidential election campaign, and is linked to America's segregated past.

The experiment in extending democracy to people of African descent in the US is still fairly recent - since 1965

Professor Manning Marable of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University says that Barack Obama is just the latest candidate to suffer as a result.

"The experiment in extending democracy to people of African descent in the US is still fairly recent - since 1965," he says.

Marable says African-Americans fear that many white Americans, particularly those over 50, are not yet ready for a black president and that this could dent any serious presidential challenge mounted by Obama.

Those fears were seemingly confirmed during January's New Hampshire primary when, despite polls predicting an Obama victory, Clinton scored a crucial win, leading analysts to suggest that the state's largely white population had found itself unable to vote for a black man.

The professor and others have also raised another frightening reminder of America's racially divided history when they point to the fate of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, who were both assassinated.

But on the streets of Harlem on Super Tuesday, people are confident that Obama can pull off a victory. Even in New York.

After all, it is Obama's supporters who are the ones pounding the wet Harlem pavements on their way to polling stations, handing out leaflets and making their case.

Clinton supporters, in contrast, are nowhere to be found.

And if the results of a straw poll conducted by Al Jazeera outside one Harlem polling station are repeated elsewhere - the senator from Illinois is on course for a landslide.

Source: Al Jazeera