Steven Niven

This month guest scholar Steven Niven, Executive Editor of the African American National Biography and the forthcoming Dictionary of African Biography, examines the historic candidacy of Barack Obama within the context of the civil rights movement and the changing nature of black politics. (Access to linked articles is available only to subscribers.)

Another Tremor in the Iceberg: Barack Obama's Candidacy and the Modern Civil Rights Movement

Barack Obama Jr., the first African American presidential nominee of a major political party, was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, on August 4, 1961. His birth coincided with a crucial turning point in the history of American race relations, although like many turning points it did not seem so at the time. Few observers believed that Jim Crow was in its death throes. Seven years after the Supreme Court's Brown ruling, less than 1 percent of southern black students attended integrated schools. Southern colleges had witnessed token integration at best. In early 1961 Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Hamilton Holmes integrated the University of Georgia, but James Meredith's application to enter Ole Miss that same year was met by Mississippi authorities with a "carefully calculated campaign of delay, harassment, and masterly inactivity," in the words of federal judge John Minor Wisdom. Despite the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960 and promises from the new administration of President John F. Kennedy, the voting rights of African Americans remained virtually nonexistent in large swathes of Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana.

However, the Freedom Rides that began in the summer of 1961 and the voting rights campaign that Robert P. Moses initiated in McComb County, Mississippi, in the very week of Obama's birth, signaled a hardening of African American resistance. There was among a cadre of activists a new determination to confront both segregation and the extreme caution of the Kennedy administration on civil rights. Later that fall, Bob Moses wrote a note from the freezing drunk-tank in Magnolia, Mississippi, where he and eleven others were being held for attempting to register black voters. "This is Mississippi, the middle of the iceberg. This is a tremor in the middle of the iceberg from a stone that the builders rejected."

Over the next three years, Moses, Stokely Carmichael, James Farmer, James Forman, John Lewis, Diane Nash, Marion Barry, James Bevel, Bob Zellner, and thousands of activists devoted their lives to shattering that iceberg. Some, including Jimmy Lee Jackson, James Cheney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner gave their lives in that cause. They took the civil rights struggle to the heart of the segregationist South: to McComb, Jackson, and Philadelphia, Mississippi, to Albany, Georgia, and to Birmingham, Alabama. By filling county jails and prison farms, by facing fire hoses, truncheons, and worse, they ultimately made segregation and disfranchisement untenable, paving the way for the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Obama's childhood experience of the dramatic changes wrought by the 1960s, seen from the vantage point of Hawaii and Indonesia, necessarily differed from most African American contemporaries in rural Mississippi or urban Detroit. But it would be a mistake to argue that he was untouched by those developments. His black Kenyan father, Barack Obama Sr. met his white Kansan mother, Ann Dunham, at the University of Hawaii, where the older Obama had gone to study on a program founded by his fellow Luo, Tom Mboya. Mboya's program received financial support from civil rights stalwarts, including Jackie Robinson, Harry Belafonte, and Sidney Poitier. After Obama Sr. left his wife and child behind in 1963, Ann Dunham became the dominant figure in young Barry Obama's formative years, and Obama has argued that the values his mother taught greatly shaped his worldview. Those values were largely secular, but grounded in the church-based interracial idealism of the early 1960s civil rights movement—the beloved community inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.'s rhetoric, Fannie Lou Hamer's heroic activism, and Mahalia Jackson's gospel singing.

After returning from Indonesia in 1971 to live with his white grandparents and go to high school in Hawaii, Obama's formal education was abetted by his friendship with "Frank," an African American drinking buddy of his grandfather, who tutored the young Obama in the history of black progressive struggles. The scholar Gerald Horne has speculated that Frank may have been Frank Marshall Davis, a pioneering radical journalist in the 1930s whose jazz criticism and poetry was influential in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. Davis, a Kansas native, moved to Hawaii in the late 1940s.

Obama's work as an anti-poverty activist in Chicago in the 1980s likewise built on the legacy of Arthur Brazier and other 1960s community organizers influenced by Saul Alinsky. Arriving in Chicago in the era of Harold Washington also helped school Obama in the ways of Chicago politics. As the director of a major "get-out-the vote" drive in Illinois in the 1992 elections, he helped elect both Bill Clinton to the presidency and Carol Moseley Braun to the U.S. Senate. Connections through his wife, Michelle Robinson Obama, who lived in Chicago's working-class black Southside, a schoolfriend of Santita Jackson (daughter of Jesse Jackson), and an aide to Mayor Richard Daley certainly helped Obama win friends and influence the right people in Chicago's Democratic Party. The luster of his fame as the first African American president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review, as well as his self-evident political and rhetorical skills undoubtedly marked Obama out from the general pack of political hopefuls. In 1996 he easily won a seat in the Illinois Senate, representing a district that encompassed the worlds of both "Obama the University of Chicago Law Professor"—liberal, wealthy, and cosmopolitan Hyde Park—and "Obama the community organizer"—the district's poorer neighborhoods which housed the headquarters of Operation Breadbasket.

Obama's achievements in the Illinois legislature were solid, though not spectacular. His cool demeanor, cerebral approach, and links to Hyde Park liberalism irked established black leaders in Springfield, veterans of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, who viewed Obama as a Johnny-Come-Lately who had not paid his dues. The charge that he was somehow "not black enough" came to the fore in his unsuccessful primary challenge for the U.S. congressional seat of the former Black Panther, Bobby Rush, in 2000. Although Obama secured a majority of white primary voters, Rush won the vast majority of black voters and defeated Obama by a margin of 2 to 1, successfully depicting him as a Harvard-educated, Hyde Park elitist at odds with the more prosaic values of the mainly black working-class district.

Despite that setback, Obama stunned political observers four years later by winning the 2004 Democratic primary for U.S. Senate in Illinois, and then crushing his (admittedly very weak) Republican opponent in the general election, Alan Keyes. Keyes—a black, ultraconservative, fundamentalist pro-lifer who had been a minor diplomat in the Ronald Reagan administration, had few direct links to Illinois—was placed on the ballot after the primaries because the Republican primary winner had dropped out following a sex scandal. Obama also benefited from a well-received keynote address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Boston. It was at the DNC that most Americans first heard and saw the self-described "skinny kid with a funny name," who urged his fellow citizens to look beyond the fierce partisanship that had characterized politics since the 1990s.

"The pundits like to slice and dice our country into Red [Republican] States and Blue [Democratic] States," he told the watching millions.

But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don't like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and yes, we've got some gay friends in the Red States. . . . We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the Stars and Stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.

Obama's arrival in the Senate in January 2005 provoked significant media interest, verging on what some have called Obama-mania. He was, after all, only the fifth African American to serve in that body in 215 years, following Hiram Rhodes Revels, Blanche Bruce, Edward Brooke, and Moseley-Braun. But media scrutiny and the popular interest in the new candidate went far beyond the attention given to Moseley-Braun in 1992. In part, this was because Obama's election symbolized a broader generational shift in African American politics. Black political gains in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, were largely achieved by a generation of politicians who came of age in the southern civil right movement, like John Lewis, Eva Clayton, Vernon Jordan, Andrew Young, or in urban Democratic politics, such as Charles Rangel in New York and Willie Brown in San Francisco. Obama was not the only Ivy League–educated black politician to emerge in the early 2000s. In 2002, Artur Davis, like Obama, a Harvard Law School graduate won election to the House of Representatives from Alabama; in 2005, Deval Patrick, another Harvard Law graduate, became only the second African American elected governor of a state (Massachusetts) since Reconstruction; and in 2006 Cory Booker (Yale Law School and Queens College Oxford) and Michael Nutter (University of Pennsylvania) were elected mayors of Newark and Philadelphia, respectively. Harold Ford Jr., a Penn grad and Tennessee congressman narrowly lost a U.S. Senate race in Tennessee the same year. Patrick and Nutter are a few years older than Obama, while Davis (b. 1967), Booker (b. 1969), and Ford (b. 1970) are slightly younger. In terms of ideology, there are also similarities in these politicians' commitment to post-partisanship, although Ford, now leader of the Democratic Leadership Council, and Davis, have been more willing to adopt socially, as well as economically conservative positions, so as to broaden their appeal as possible statewide candidates in the South.

But perhaps the most remarkable facet of Obama-mania is the rapidity with which the freshman Senator was discussed as a possible presidential candidate in 2012 or 2016. Or rather that would have been the most remarkable facet, had Obama not sought and then won the Democratic nomination for president in 2008! It is hard to think of a comparable American politician whose rise has been so swift, dramatic, or unforeseen, except maybe that other, most famous Illinois politician, Abraham Lincoln.

Whether Obama follows Lincoln as the second U.S. president from Illinois is unknown at this time of writing, five weeks from Election Day, 2008. At the very least, Obama's candidacy marks another tremor in the iceberg that Bob Moses faced in that Magnolia drunk-tank in the fall of 1961, and that James Meredith faced down while integrating Old Miss in the face of a full-force white riot a year later. It is, then, all too fitting—and a reasonable marker of American progress in race relations—that forty-six years later Barack Obama became the first African American to participate in a presidential debate, not just in Mississippi, but at Ole Miss, itself, the hallowed symbol of segregationist resistance.