Barack Obama strove to avoid race as a defining issue for his campaign. Part of this was pragmatic; running as an explicitly “Black” candidate would have hurt his electability beyond the racial silo, not because of racism per se but rather because tying yourself to any one identity too strongly by necessity pushes other identities further away. The Reverend Wright affair forced Obama’s hand, but even then he did not acknowledge race so much as retire it. The speech on race he gave was perhaps a defining moment in American politics, the seed for a post-racial future ideal, a triumph by any definition – and yet also, another successful changing of the topic away from race.
In fact even as Obama prepares to take the oath of office tomorrow, the day after a national holiday honoring the dream of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. of which Obama is the literal manifestation, Obama still seeks to minimize the racial aspect of his historic victory:
Barack Obama will have a rival for the spotlight at Tuesday’s Inauguration: the nation’s First Black President.
The swearing-in of the country’s first-ever African-American
commander-in-chief will be a central storyline for the media and for
many in the jubilant crowd — but it is not the tale Team Obama is
trying to tell.
There’s a natural temptation to situate Obama’s inauguration in the arc
of the civil rights movement. A huge sign in a Georgetown shop window
recounts a saying that circulated during the campaign: “Rosa sat so
Martin could walk; Martin walked so Obama could run; Obama is running
so our children can fly!”
But aside from the inescapable — the location of the Lincoln Memorial,
where King gave his “I Have a Dream Speech,” and the fact that the King
holiday comes a day before the inauguration – Obama’s Inauguration
celebrations will do little to promote him as the carrier of that torch.
“We’ve tried to make sure that from the people’s point of view, this is
about them,” says Douglass. “This is not a celebration of an election —
it is a celebration of our common values.
This is the right thing to do – history itself will do its part in framing Obama within the arc of the civil rights movement and evaluating how his presidency meets the ideals of the civil rights era. By necessity, these are comparisons and analyses that must come at the end of the Obama Presidency, not it’s beginning.
And yet, it is also true that the symbolism matters. A fantastic retrospective biography of Obama in the Washington Post draws the timeline explicitly – Obama was literally born at the same time as the civil rights movement itself:
He was born on Aug. 4, 1961. On that day in Alabama and Mississippi,
an early voting rights battle was waged, with lawsuits filed in three
counties where voting officials imposed prohibitively rigid standards
on black applicants. In one Mississippi county, there were 2,490 blacks
¿ and none was registered to vote. In New Orleans that day, a federal
appeals court ruled on the expulsion of six black students from Alabama
State College who staged a sit-in at the Montgomery County Courthouse
lunch grill, where African Americans could not eat. In Washington, five
blacks who had been arrested by security police for trying to integrate
the Glen Echo Amusement Park in the Maryland suburbs were asking the
U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.
And in Shreveport, La., on
the day Obama was born, a squadron of policemen assembled in the
Continental Trailways bus depot to uphold local and state laws
prohibiting black people from stepping foot in a waiting room reserved
for whites. Across the Deep South that summer, black and white Freedom
Riders had encountered violence and arrests as they challenged Jim Crow
laws by trying to integrate buses and bus stations. At 5:20 that August
morning, four African Americans arrived at the Trailways depot with
tickets to take the 5:45 from Shreveport to Jackson, Miss., the hub of
protests where hundreds of Freedom Riders had been arrested in previous
months. When the four attempted to enter the white waiting room, they
were met by the Shreveport police chief and 40 officers. The riders
refused orders to leave and were arrested for disturbing the peace,
along with two compatriots who had driven them to the bus station and
were accused of “counseling and encouraging” them.
Aug. 4, 1964,
the day Obama turned 3, was one of the seminal tragic dates in civil
rights history. It was on that day that FBI agents in Mississippi, at
the end of a two month search, discovered the bodies of Michael
Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney after bulldozing a partly
constructed earthen dam in the woods outside the town of Philadelphia.
The three men ¿ Goodman and Schwerner white, Chaney black, all
voting-rights organizers during what was known as Freedom Summer ¿ had
been murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan with the implicit
acquiescence of racist local authorities.
This historical context gives us a sense of just how much distance has been covered from a civil rights perspective – how short a time ago, was America the home of the brave indeed but not the land of the free, and still failing to live up to the promise of its founding!
It is fitting that Obama invoke the Founders, then, tomorrow. What MLK Jr. did was to remind America of the promise of its origins, not define some new level of liberty for America to reach beyond. It is the Founding vision of America that Obama represents, and the Reverend was a moral guide along that journey to full fruition. Obama himself does not represent the end of that journey, but rather the beginning. We have only truly arrived now. This is the new Freedom Ride.