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African Americans respond to Obama's shift on DOMA
"The fact that these initiatives are coming from the government - and not just that - from Obama and Holder, two African American family men, is going to generate conversation among African Americans," Carter said. "This can open a very fruitful and interesting dialogue."
Such conversation is already taking place, said black ministers and church leaders, who have watched Obama's gradual moves on the issue.
Since emerging on the national scene, Obama has carefully handled the issue, saying in 2008 marriage was between a man and a woman. On the eve of the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" last year, he found a new formulation: He was "evolving" on the issue as he met more same-sex couples.
"I think he's showing leadership here, and the leadership will certainly be shown in the [black] community," said Cornell Belcher, a pollster who advised Obama in 2008. "In the community, he's not simply a political leader for black and brown audiences, he's a cultural leader. It's something larger. So he gives [gay rights] a platform that it would have not tended to have."
Patrick Egan, an assistant political professor at New York University, said research indicates that President Bill Clinton was able to bring along a healthy share of his supporters on "don't ask" in the 1990s.
"Given that a subshare of black voters are so loyal to Obama, and he commands a fair amount of respect, my instinct is that a public change of heart on his part to support gay marriage could have a substantial impact on black voters," Egan said.
Sharon Lettman-Hicks, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, which advocates for gay rights, praised Obama's decision, saying it makes clear "there is not just one moral authority in the black community."
Rev. Joseph Lowery, the civil rights leader who prayed at Obama's inauguration, has long supported civil unions and predicted black churchgoers will continue to support Obama even if he backs same-sex unions.
"The president has overwhelming support from the black church because people are looking at the bigger picture," Lowery said. "He will not be hurt by one issue."
Sanders agreed, remembering the 1996 political fight over the Defense of Marriage Act.
"I personally don't really remember a whole groundswell of support from African Americans for the Defense of Marriage Act [when it] passed. That was a white evangelical issue," said Sanders, who also teaches Christian ethics at Howard University. "We are tolerant and that might not be a bad thing. It may be ethically messy, but I think that's the best you can do."
Staff writer Perry Bacon Jr. and polling manager Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.