Lloyd Marcus' conservatism started when he was 9.
His family had just moved out of the "ghetto" to a brand-new high rise in Baltimore -- within months, he said, the "dream come true" turned into a nightmare, as the building of welfare-collecting black residents became a den of crime.
His father moved the family out as soon as he got a job with the city fire department, but "my cousins never escaped," Marcus said. He cried as he told the story.
Marcus, a black conservative who is now involved in the growing tea party movement, attributes the problems of his childhood neighborhood, his extended family and the black community in general to a "cradle-to-grave government dependency" that in the case of his cousins enabled an idle life of crime and drug abuse.
To Marcus, President Obama's policies perpetuate that dependency. That's why, he says, it baffles him and other black conservatives when the tea party movement is dismissed as somehow anti-black, as a rowdy bunch of ignorant, white protesters who have it in for the nation's first black president.
"This is the nicest angry mob I've ever seen," Marcus said.
Marcus is one of a number of black conservatives who have joined up with, and helped lead, the conservative tea party movement since its inception. Though the movement has attracted criticism for its supposed lack of diversity -- MSNBC host Chris Matthews recently called the groups "monochromatic" and "all white" -- those minority activists who are involved say the movement has little to do with race, and that it is attracting a more diverse crowd every day.
"I think a lot of black people are waking up from their Obama night-of-the-living-dead fog," Marcus said. "They were walking around like zombies going Obama, Obama, Obama."
He and other black conservatives connected with one of the hundreds of tea party groups across America were largely active in conservative and Republican causes before the movement's start in early 2009. They spoke and wrote about the need for smaller government, lower spending and lower taxes and warned that Obama's candidacy would pose a threat to those values.
But in the tea party movement they found a group that not only reflected their views but provided a platform.
Marcus campaigned with a group against Obama in the 2008 election. But the Florida resident, who is a musician, gained a degree of fame in the tea party world a year ago when he cut a "tea party anthem" song -- in it, he belted about the dangers of wealth redistribution to a gospel-sounding backup track.
"In less than a week, the song was national," Marcus said. He was asked to sing at an Orlando tea party rally last spring and has since performed at rallies across the country. He's traveled cross-country on both Tea Party Express tours and plans to join up for the third tour this March.
Marcus does not advocate for the creation of a third party, but said the tea party groups should serve to pull the Republican Party back to the conservative roots from which it has strayed.
William Owens, a black author and publisher who with his wife traveled on the Tea Party Express tours with Marcus and has spoken at just about every stop along the way, also came out strongly against Obama in 2008. He published the book, "Obama: Why Black America Should Have Doubts," before the election, in an attempt to address what he called a "misguided passion" toward the former Illinois senator in black America.
When the tea party movement started, he said he found a way to build on what he was already doing, outside the Republican Party system which he calls out of touch. He first spoke at a rally in Las Vegas on tax day last April.
"It was just a natural fit," Owens said.
He said the rallies are still "mostly white," but that more blacks are getting involved. He took particular umbrage at Matthews' comment, blasting out a press release that criticized the MSNBC host for "pushing conservative black Americans to the back of the media bus."
Owens now publishes a journal documenting the tea party cross-country tours. The Multi-Cultural Conservative Coalition is also sponsoring the next leg of the Tea Party Express.
Despite the enthusiastic involvement of black conservatives in the tea party rallies and trips, Obama still enjoys seemingly unshakable support from the majority of black Americans. A recent poll from Gallup put Obama's approval rating among blacks at 91 percent. Among whites, that number was 42 percent.
Tea party groups also might not be doing themselves any favors when some of their supporters are photographed holding somewhat shocking signs at rallies -- such as one last year that said, "The White House has a lyin' African."
But such demonstrators may be the exception.
Charles Lollar, a Maryland-based tea party supporter who is black, said there's no validity to the racism charges.
"I've seen black faces in the crowd. I've seen Latino faces in the crowd. ... It's not a movement of color. It's not a movement of party. It's a movement of principle. It's a movement of America," Lollar said.
Lollar started speaking at tea party events last winter and said his biggest motivation is opposition to the stimulus package -- both the $787 billion package that passed last February and the sequel that some Democrats are trying to push this year.
Lollar has since parlayed his activism into a high-stakes campaign. The Charles County businessman is hoping win the GOP nomination to challenge House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., in the congressional midterm this November.
"When we beat him in November, it's going to send a strong message across the country," he said.
Lollar, whose previous post was as chairman of the Charles County Republican Central Committee, has an uphill battle to unseat the nation's second most powerful House Democrat.
Hoyer has been in office nearly three decades, and his latest campaign finance report put his available cash at $1.3 million. Lollar said he's raised $40,000 -- he aims to raise $2.5 million by fall.
Lollar is running from within the GOP apparatus. But it remains to be seen whether the party establishment will reach out to other tea party conservatives like him to ensure they stay loyal to the Republican Party and not challenge it like Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman did in New York state. Hoffman, who is white, pushed out the Republican candidate in the race for Congressional District 23, and ended up losing narrowly to Democrat Bill Owens.
David Avella, executive director of Republican recruiter GOPAC, said his organization hasn't been actively mining the tea party movement for state and local candidates but that the groups could prove fertile ground for candidates.
"Many in the tea party movement are Republicans who want to make sure the party gets back to its fiscal discipline days," he said, calling those activists natural "allies."
Tea partiers point to recent political coups they say demonstrate the movement's broadening influence and appeal. And they say they feel a certain freedom in the scattered leadership of the movement, as opposed to the top-down style of the GOP.
"I think it's great that we have all these different organizations and they have nobody in charge," Marcus said.
Marcus cited Hoffman's influence in the New York race as well as Republican Scott Brown's bid for the Massachusetts Senate seat once held by Ted Kennedy. Brown, while not sprouting from the tea party movement, is supported by it as he enjoys a late-in-the-game surge in the race.
"This is a movement that has swept the country," Marcus said. "It has really been the rebirth of conservatism in America."
Interestingly, Marcus said he used to work with one of Obama's biggest supporters, Oprah Winfrey, decades ago at a local station in Baltimore before she moved to Chicago.
The two have since lost touch, he said.