Barack Obama and the power of race in American history

Barack Obama and the power of race in American history

21 Jul 2008

Dr Timothy Minchin

In the light of recent American history, Barack Obama's achievement in securing the Democratic nomination for the presidency is an incredible achievement. When Rev. Martin Luther King espoused his famous "dream" in 1963, he spoke of African Americans having basic rights to vote and use public facilities on an equal basis to whites. Until very recently, few Americans, white or black, could have believed that an African American would have a realistic opportunity of being the leader of the world's most powerful country.

It is important to recall how far the United States has come even in Obama's short lifetime. Although Obama is a young man, when he was born in 1961 American society was still largely segregated, either by custom or – in the case of the southern states – by law.

In the early 1960s about half of all African Americans lived in the South, yet most whites in that region continued to thumb their noses at federal integration efforts. In 1964, less than 2 percent of southern schools had offered even token compliance with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which had decreed that racially segregated schools were unconstitutional. Higher education was also largely segregated, and in 1962 there were riots at the University of Mississippi when the first black student enrolled in classes.

Obama's success has derived partly from his ability to mobilize African American voters, yet when he was an infant many blacks were still not allowed to even vote. In 1964, for example, just 22.5 percent of adult blacks in the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi were registered voters, and in some majority-black counties, the figure was less than 5 percent. This was almost a century after the Fifteenth Amendment had technically guaranteed blacks' right to vote.

In most of the rural South, however, violence and intimidation were used to ensure that politics remained "white folks business." When Obama was a toddler, three young civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi simply for trying to help ordinary black citizens to register to vote. Over the course of the 1960s, many other African Americans also disappeared simply because they had the temerity to seek their constitutional rights, and some of these cases are still being resolved before the state courts.

It was not until the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that discrimination against black voters started to be addressed, and it was many more years before African Americans won elected offices in large numbers. By the mid-1970s, several thousand blacks held these positions, and the situation continued to improve after this.

Following the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, blacks also gained access to public facilities and the right to enrol in traditionally-white schools, although many whites responded by setting up private clubs and private schools. Since then, white attitudes have softened, while ongoing black activism has yielded steady gains in a wide range of areas. Still, clear signs of racial division remain; housing is largely segregated and African Americans are much poorer than their white counterparts.

Part of the first generation of African Americans to gain widespread access to higher education, Obama has clearly benefited from the remarkable changes that have occurred over the last forty years. Like many of this generation, Obama has broken down barriers at a remarkable pace. In 1990, for example, he became the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, a position that served as a platform for his move into community activism and then politics.

It remains to be seen, however, whether America has really come far enough to put the racial divisions of the recent past behind it and elect a black man as its president. As the journalist and author Studs Terkel has documented, race is the "American obsession" and blacks that have run for elected offices have often found it hard to persuade whites to vote for them in large numbers.

The big task for Obama is to convince conservative white voters to listen to his message. The Illinois senator is a talented orator and he offers a clear vision of change at a time when many Americans are genuinely disillusioned with George Bush's policies. Obama has grasped that his best chance of victory comes from linking John McCain to these failed policies.

Obama has a genuine chance of securing the presidency in November. Given the fact that many black Americans could not even vote or sit at the front of the bus when he was born, this in itself is a sign of how much things have changed, no matter what the outcome of the landmark election.

Timothy Minchin is an associate professor of North American history at La Trobe University. A frequent visitor to the United States, he has published widely on the history of American race relations and is the co-author (with John Salmond) of a large, forthcoming study on the long-term consequences of the civil rights movement.




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