Paul Finkelman

Paul Finkelman, Editor in Chief of the Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619–1895, writes on the historic election of Barack Obama as the first black president of the United States of America. (Access to linked articles is available only to subscribers.)

The First President Who is Black

The election is over and America is forever changed. There is no other way to understand the spectacular rise of Barack Obama. When Obama was born in 1961 segregation was still legal in a third of the nation. The majority of blacks lived in the South, where few could vote; almost none went to integrated schools; and they were barred from public facilities, restaurants, hotels, theaters, amusement parks, public parks, and just about everything else. No black person had ever served on the Supreme Court, in a president's cabinet, or as the elected governor of a state. None had been in the Senate since Reconstruction.

The bloodiest battles of the civil rights movement had yet to be fought and the civil rights martyrs who would define the decade—including and especially Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr.—were still alive. So too were the three young men who would be murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi (Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney); Viola Liuzzo, the mother from Detroit who would be murdered at Selma; and the four young girls who would be blown up in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

The America Barack Obama was born into was a deeply segregated place. The son of a black father and a white mother, his parents could not even have lived in the same house in 1961 in about eighteen different states. Anyone predicting that the son of this union would one day be president would have risked being committed in a mental hospital. The idea of a black president was not just remote, it was impossible to conceive. Only in a science fiction story about an alternative universe could the parents of the baby Barack Obama have thought he would one day be president of the Harvard Law Review, a member of the U.S. Senate, and eventually the primary resident of the White House.

Welcome to the alternative universe of 2008.

An Obama presidency will not end racism. It may in fact lead to some increase in overt racist talk, as those who don't like his policies will blame them on race. But in other ways, an Obama presidency will change the nature of race relations. Whites who said they would never vote for a black man, in the end did just that. The Republican Party, which played the race card so effectively with Willie Horton in 1988, was unable to do so this time. Fringe Republicans and supporters of McCain offered up offensive and nasty racist characterizations of Obama, including distributing handbills that looked like food stamps with Obama on them. The McCain campaign did not embrace such actions, but neither did it denounce them. In a last desperate effort the McCain campaign focused on Obama's former preacher, Rev. Wright. But a radical minister of a respected church is no Willie Horton, and no one seemed to be much affected by the effort.

Even as he became the first black president, Obama transcended race. His earliest support did not come from the black community, but from upper middle class Americans of all races, who were charmed by his intelligence and thoughtfulness, and who were anxious to find a new political leader in the new century. Obama campaigned on economics, foreign policy, health care, and jobs. He rarely spoke of inequality or civil rights, not because he is not concerned about them, but because he understood that they were not the central issues of the election. Furthermore, he understood that inequality in health care and job opportunities cannot be overcome until we all have health care and the economy is no longer in free fall. Thus, Obama campaigned on issues that affect all Americans, without regard to race, geography, or class.

Indeed, in the end Obama is not America's first black president—he is the first American president who happens to be black. The difference is huge.

Paul Finkelman
Osaka, Japan
5 November 2008