On Saturday, L. Douglas Wilder will make history. Shortly after noon in Richmond, Va., the former capital of the Confederacy, he takes the oath as America's first elected black governor. Mr. Wilder's symbolic triumph, moving into a job once held by Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, ushers in a fascinating new era in American politics, in the opinion of some experts.
Already this month, David Dinkins, another black man, took over as mayor of New York, the nation's largest city. Black mayors also govern Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore, New Orleans, Cleveland, Seattle, Atlanta, and Washington.
Across the country, more black politicians are proving they can attract voters across racial lines. No longer are they limited to districts and contests where the majority of voters are black.
This year, blacks are expected to battle for governor in at least two Southern states, Georgia and South Carolina. Nationwide, 7,226 blacks now hold elected political office at the federal, state, and local levels. That's up nearly 400 percent in the past 20 years.
Political analysts say that Governor-Elect Wilder and Mayor Dinkins represent a new kind of black politicians who could eventually expand their influence even further. Unlike many previous black leaders, they fashion their appeals toward Americans of all races and persuasions.
``Wilder's election was no fluke,'' says political scientist Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia. ``This is the beginning of a major trend. Wilder, Dinkins, and [US Rep.] Bill Gray [D of Pennsylvania] are representative of the next generation of black politicians.''
Since the 1960s, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led his crusade for civil rights, black political leadership has evolved through three stages, experts say.
First, there were black politicians who succeeded primarily within their own communities. Using black power at the ballot box, they took over city halls and county commissions, from Detroit to Atlanta to rural Mississippi.
Later came black politicians such as Jesse Jackson, who reached out to whites, but who still drew their primary strength from black voters. They broke important new ground. But in style and substance, their appeal to white voters was limited.
Now there is a third class of black politician - one who can win even when the vast majority of voters are white. Dinkins is one of those. Wilder is another.
``The difference between Wilder and Jesse Jackson is that Wilder can get elected in a general electorate, and Jackson cannot,'' Professor Sabato says. ``The secret for Wilder and Dinkins and Gray is they run as moderates who are politicians who happen to be black, rather than as black politicians. Jesse Jackson is a black politician. Doug Wilder is a politician who happens to be black, and there is all the difference in the world to white voters.''
Dinkins illustrated that in New York City. Two years ago, when the Rev. Mr. Jackson campaigned there for the Democratic presidential nomination, the city erupted in controversy. Jackson's previous description of the city as ``Hymietown,'' his close association with black separatist Louis Farrakhan, and his fiery, preacher style of speaking raised fears among many white voters, especially Jews. In contrast, Dinkins's campaign for mayor was based on healing and reconciliation. He spoke of pulling the city together.
``Dinkins's calling card from the start was inclusion,'' says Lee Miringoff, a public opinion specialist with the Marist Institute. ``In this way, Dinkins was able to fashion a rather broadly based coalition.''
A key factor in both the New York and Virginia elections was that neither Dinkins nor Wilder was an ideologue. Professor Sabato says of Wilder: ``He is a politician who wants to win office. So he is not uncomfortable at all moving, for example, from opposing capital punishment to favoring it.... He does what he needs to win. He is a politician.''
While Dinkins and Wilder succeeded with white voters, partly because of such flexibility, they remain indebted to other, more militant blacks, such as Jackson, who preceded them.
Dr. Miringoff notes it was the massive efforts to register more black voters - efforts fostered by leaders like Jackson - which played a crucial role in the elections of both Dinkins and Wilder.
Cheryl Miller, an analyst with the Joint Center for Political Studies, suggests the success of Wilder and Dinkins should not be overblown. We should not draw too many conclusions from only two elections, Dr. Miller says. Furthermore, it remains to be seen how well they will manage New York City and Virginia.
Earl Black, a professor of government studies at the University of South Carolina, says that a key to Wilder's success was that he took the long route to the governorship. Before running for governor, he first captured the lieutenant governorship.
``You need to demonstrate political experience. That is where Jesse Jackson has real difficulty.''
In New York, Dinkins also demonstrated the advantage of political roots. His opponents attacked him as part of the old, New York City political establishment - but such attacks backfired. His association with well-known political figures actually helped.
``Some polls showed that voters thought Dinkins was part of the establishment, but they were comfortable with that. It made him part of the normal political process'' - not an unknown, unpredictable outsider trying to push his way into city hall, Miringoff says.
Although experts are impressed with black political progress, they caution that black candidates still face an uphill battle. Dr. Black says: ``Wilder's race, as close as it was, really suggests that just about everything has to be in place to elect a black as governor. There is very little margin for error.
``If Virginia Republicans had a stronger candidate, ... if the abortion issue hadn't materialized at the precise moment that it did, I am not sure Wilder would have won.''