Within the living memory of many in this country, the simple act of encouraging black Americans to reach for a vote — never mind an actual political office — was enough to risk a brutal death and a shallow grave.
WASHINGTON — Within the living memory of many in this country, the simple act of encouraging black Americans to reach for a vote — never mind an actual political office — was enough to risk a brutal death and a shallow grave.
In some of the arenas Barack Obama has filled by the tens of thousands in his historic campaign for the presidency, he once would not have been able to take so much as a sip from the water fountain.
Yet in a country with a tortured racial history — institutionalized slavery, a bloody civil war, wrenching Supreme Court rulings, riots in the streets and the modern realignment of its political parties — the victory by the 46-year-old senator from Illinois writes a new chapter in the American story.
“It really is an extraordinary moment,” said Aldon Morris, author of “Origins of the Civil Rights Movement” and a sociology professor at Northwestern University. “You wonder about the folks who risked their lives in Selma and Birmingham for the franchise, if they ever envisioned that this would happen in some of their lifetimes.”
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Obama is an unlikely heir to that struggle. Neither a participant in the civil-rights movement nor a legacy of its leadership, his politics are deliberately post-racial. He is the son of a mixed marriage who presents himself as the product of Kansas and Kenya.
Initially, at least, the most fervent supporters of Obama’s candidacy have been young people for whom the baton-wielding state troopers in Selma and the police dogs lunging at peaceful protesters in Birmingham are only grainy black-and-white images from a bygone time.
But it is perhaps natural that his candidacy should resonate most with Americans who grew up in an era of desegregated schools and who, for all the uncomfortable racial baggage that persists, at least lived their lives accustomed to encountering blacks as neighbors, colleagues in the workplace and accomplished figures in pop culture, business, sports and government.
Two-thirds of white Americans now say they have a black neighbor. Fewer than half did as recently as 1984, when the country first met the easily approachable and decidedly upper-middle-class Huxtable family with the premiere of “The Cosby Show.”
During the Bush administration, African Americans have been at the pinnacle of the national-security apparatus, with Colin Powell as the president’s first-term secretary of state and Condoleezza Rice as national security adviser and later Powell’s successor. The television series “24” began introducing America in 2001 to a fictional black president, the decisive and confident David Palmer.
Familiarity with ethnic minorities will be an increasing part of the American experience as the country trends toward becoming a “majority-minority” nation later this century. That status already has been reached by two of the largest states, California and Texas, where whites are now a minority of the population to a combined majority of Latinos, blacks and Asians.
“This campaign and his victory in the Democratic primary signify a turning point in American politics,” said Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. “It would not have been possible 40 years ago for this candidacy to be launched. It would not have been possible 20 years ago for this candidacy to be viable.”
Still, the racial passions that are never far from the surface of American life already have erupted in the presidential campaign, growing stronger as Obama neared the nomination. By the time of the Kentucky primary in May, nearly 1 in 6 voters statewide openly cited race as a reason they voted against Obama.
As the contest intensified, former President Clinton churned the debate by accusing Obama of playing “the race card.” Former Democratic vice-presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro groused that Obama was getting an affirmative-action break from the media and voters. A video of incendiary sermons by Obama’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., laid bare racial tensions, forcing Obama to address the subject directly with a speech in Philadelphia in March.
Race and national identity are likely to continue to be a part of the campaign, either explicitly or implicitly through attacks based on the Muslim heritage of Obama’s African ancestors that portray him as alien to American culture. Though his Arabic middle name Hussein is taken from his paternal grandfather, Obama is Christian.
“There is going to be an intense amount of conversation about this campaign, and the people who feel doubt about voting for an African American on any basis connected to race are going to have to confront those doubts in conversations with people they know. And that’s going to be a big, big part of this,” said political strategist Tad Devine, a senior adviser to the last two Democratic presidential nominees.
The distance that the nation has traveled — and has yet to go — is apparent from the institution in which Obama now holds office: the U.S. Senate. Were he to be elected president, the chamber would have no African-American members.
Among Obama’s colleagues in the Senate is a former member of the Ku Klux Klan and one-time stalwart in the chamber for the Southern struggle to preserve segregation, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who welcomed Obama to the body and later benefited from a fundraising appeal Obama made on his behalf. In his memoir, Obama describes the West Virginia senator contritely looking him in the eye and telling him, “I only have one regret, you know. The foolishness of youth. … “
The same epic battle in the Senate over civil-rights legislation that paved the way for Obama’s political success reshaped American politics, tearing the once-Solid South from the Democratic Party and setting the stage for the Republican domination of the White House that began just a few years later. The red-and-blue electoral map that is in part a vestige of that realignment is one of the obstacles Obama will have to overcome to win in November.
For his part, Obama rarely directly invokes the barrier-breaking nature of his candidacy. But the hero of the civil-rights movement, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is ever-present in his campaign speeches, quoted on “the fierce urgency of now.” And so is the feel of an extraordinary time, as Obama reaches rhetorical crescendos in which he assures his followers that “our time is now” and calls upon them to “change the course of history.”
The Obama campaign so far has successfully navigated what Ron Walters, deputy campaign manager of Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 presidential bids, calls a “dual-track candidacy.” The Illinois senator has managed to prove his bona fides to black Americans while maintaining the confidence of white supporters.
Obama’s change-themed candidacy has gained strength at a time of deep public discontent with President Bush and a struggle with Islamic fundamentalism that has raised doubts abroad about the U.S.
Obama officially becomes the Democratic nominee at the party convention on Aug. 28, the 45th anniversary of King’s speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial delivering his vision of an America in which skin color no longer limited life’s possibilities.
“That day we will be playing over and over again the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, and that night Barack Obama will emerge on that platform,” said Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill.
“Anything is possible,” Jackson added, “and that’s the message that this moment in American history provides.”