Jesse Jackson and Condoleezza Rice get the top support among blacks asked to name the nation's "most important black leader," according to an AP-AOL Black Voices poll. Next come Colin Powell and Barack Obama.
Many blacks question whether any one person can wear the leadership mantle for such a large and diverse group of people. At the same time, two-thirds in the poll said leaders in their communities were effective representatives of their interests.
When blacks were asked to come up with the person they considered "the most important black leader," 15 percent chose Jackson, a civil rights activist who ran for president in the 1980s, while 11 percent picked Secretary of State Rice, 8 percent chose former Secretary of State Powell, and 6 percent named Obama, a freshman Democratic senator from Illinois.
About one-third declined to volunteer a name.
Two of the four mentioned most often, Rice and Powell, are from a Republican administration that is unpopular with most blacks.
Less than one in five of those polled, 18 percent, said the current black leadership is doing a "very effective" job of representing the black community. Half described black leadership as "somewhat effective."
"I'm kind of disillusioned," said retiree John Manning, who says the leadership is somewhat effective. The Democrat from Port Charlotte, Fla., added: "They seem to be going in different directions. There doesn't seem to be a cohesiveness."
The answers to the open-ended question about leadership were divided among a number of well-known black Americans — a sharp contrast to the 1960s, when Martin Luther King Jr. was recognized as the leading voice among many prominent civil rights leaders.
Nation of Islam minister Louis Farrakhan got 4 percent; talk show host Oprah Winfrey received 3 percent; King, who was killed in 1968, got 3 percent, and former Democratic presidential candidate Al Sharpton got 2 percent. Some 14 percent picked somebody else.
One in five, 21 percent, said they were not sure whom to name among current black leaders and 13 percent chose no one. A few in the poll, 1 percent, named themselves.
"What is 'the most important black leader?"' asked Thomas Miller, a 59-year-old political independent who lives in Philadelphia. "You have to lead your own self, don't put that on anybody else. Putting faith in somebody else is blind."
At the height of the civil rights movement, the need to rally behind individual black leaders was more clear cut.
"In the days of segregation, when blacks were limited to certain neighborhoods, you could look around the black community and identify who the leaders were," said Roger Wilkins, a history professor at George Mason University and a former Justice Department official involved in the civil-rights movement.
There have been dramatic changes for blacks, who have closed the income gap considerably with whites over the past few decades.
"There's been an extraordinary expansion of the black middle class and a shift in the locus of leadership," said Michael Eric Dyson, an analyst of racial politics and author of "Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster." "A more diversified black community doesn't find it necessary to have one voice."
For Karissa Ayers, a 25-year-old Democratic-leaning mother of three from East Moline, Ill., the most meaningful comments about Katrina's disastrously slow recovery effort came from a popular hip-hop performer who blamed racial bias.
"I liked everything Kanye West had to say about the hurricane and everything he had to say about President Bush," Ayers said. However, blacks say by a 2-1 margin that hip-hop artists are a negative influence, rather than positive. Younger people were more likely to say they are a positive influence.
Galvanized by the images from Katrina news coverage, black activists and elected leaders around the country are considering new strategies for making gains for blacks, both politically and economically.
The changing of the guard in leadership in black America was highlighted by the recent deaths of civil rights pioneers Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King, widow of the slain civil rights leader.
"The old has passed away," Bernice King said in her mother's eulogy last week in a church in the Atlanta suburbs. "There is a new order that is emerging."
The AP-AOL Black Voices poll of 600 black adults was conducted by telephone from Jan. 9 to Feb. 3 and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. It was conducted by Ipsos, an international polling firm.