Rod Blagojevich, Accidental Civil Rights Champion

Roland Burris, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich’s choice to replace Barack Obama in the Senate, was on his way to Washington late on Monday, intent on participating in the ceremonial swearing in of new members in the Senate chamber the next day.

But the Democratic senators he aims to join, led by Majority Leader Harry Reid, don’t want him. To add Mr. Burris and his Blagojevich taint to their ranks, they believe, would be to imperil their chances of retaining his seat in 2010, when Illinois voters will finally get their say. So, for now anyway, Mr. Reid is vowing to deny Mr. Burris a spot in the Senate.

But that posture may be subject to change, and for one overriding reason: Mr. Burris is black.

For decades, blacks have voted overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party, which once shed its old Southern base in the name of civil rights but today offers little more than lip service to the passions of the civil rights community.

With all the attention paid to Barack Obama’s historic election, it’s easy to forget that his departure from the Senate has left the chamber with a grand total of zero black members. Since the popular election of senators was introduced nearly 100 years ago, just three blacks – one of them a Republican – have served as senators. When Democrats are in need of a candidate for a winnable Senate race, it seems, black leaders are habitually shunned.

Mr. Blagojevich, as cunning as he is profane, is well aware of this history and sought to harness the sensitivities that surround it for his own benefit. Realizing that anyone he picked for the Senate would face open hostility from the Democratic establishment, he purposely sought out Mr. Burris, in effect daring Mr. Reid and his friends to lock out of their club a black man who, at least on paper, is perfectly qualified for the position.

Whether the governor did this as part of some complicated scheme to retain his office or just for the simple pleasure of making his tormenters squirm – or some combination of the two – is open to discussion. Either way, he’s put the Senate’s Democrats in an awful bind.

Not at all surprisingly, Mr. Burris, a 71-year-old Illinois political lifer as famous for losing elections as for winning them, is shrouding himself in civil rights imagery. The day before jetting off to Washington, he spoke from the pulpit of a black church in Chicago, declaring: “We’re clear on the credentials. I hope they will follow the law.”

Some prominent black leaders, more in Illinois than in Washington, are following suit. Bobby Rush, a Chicago congressman and former Black Panther, asked the public “not to hang or lynch the appointee as you try to castigate the appointer.”

Against this backdrop, Mr. Burris’ trip to Washington presented an immediate P.R. nightmare for Mr. Reid. As of Monday, the Majority Leader was relying on the refusal of Illinois’ Democratic secretary of state to sign off on Mr. Burris’ appointment as grounds to deny him a seat. Unmoved, Mr. Burris vowed to show in the Senate on Tuesday anyway, raising the possibility that the sergeant-of-arms might be enlisted to make like George Wallace and literally blockade the door when Mr. Burris arrives.

That extreme scenario seemed unlikely by late Monday night, largely because of Mr. Burris’ persistence. Perhaps Mr. Reid initially hoped that blanket opposition to his appointment would dissuade Mr. Burris from pressing ahead, but now that he’s doing so, it places the ball back in Mr. Reid’s court: How far is he willing to go to keep Mr. Burris out?

In theory, Mr. Obama could provide an invaluable assist here, stepping into the fray publicly to give Mr. Reid cover. But while the president-elect has indicated that he opposed Mr. Burris’ appointment, he’s unlikely to expend serious political capital on the matter, not with so many weighty issues on his plate.

It does help Mr. Reid’s cause, though, that the black community’s embrace of Mr. Burris is not nearly universal. This could help him pull off a delay strategy, essentially tying up Burris’ appointment in legal proceedings while impeachment proceedings against Mr. Blagojevich move ahead in Illinois. In theory, at least, a new Democratic governor might then be in place before Mr. Reid is forced to take action on Mr. Burris’ appointment.

But frustration about constantly being snubbed for political advancement is universal among black leaders. In that sense, Mr. Burris, even if he never serves a day in the Senate, will almost certainly have an impact on the chamber. Under these circumstances, if Mr. Blagojevich’s gubernatorial successor is charged with making an appointment, could he really get away with choosing a non-black candidate?

One way or another, it seems, there will at least be one black senator in the new Congress. And for that, in a very backward way, we can thank Rod Blagojevich.

Rod Blagojevich, Accidental Civil Rights Champion