“Will Obama, the first black President in the history of the United States, realise Martin Luther King’s dream or Condoleezza Rice’s nightmare? The White House, which is now his house, was built by black slaves. I hope he won’t forget it, ever.”
— Eduardo Galeano, “Ojalá,” Página/12, November 6, 2008.
As the world savours Barack Obama’s ascent to the highest post in the United States, the same political pundits who impatiently insisted that we transcend race by not talking about it have made race the issue du jour. We’ve heard jubilant claims that Obama’s victory marks the final nail in the coffin of racism.
Unfortunately, these premature proclamations obscure what is most significant about this election: Obama’s politics of hope – his vision of uniting the nation around the creation of a caring, compassionate culture built from the “bottom up”– is actually rooted in the traditions of abolition-democracy, the ex-slaves’ post-emancipation Republicanism, and Obama’s own direct experience organising the black urban poor in Chicago.
The President-elect brings an age-old vision of civil society, born in the age of Reconstruction (1865-1877), that demands democratic engagement and understands the state’s role to support those in need, educate its citizens, ensure equal opportunity for all, protect civil liberties and civil rights and remove discriminatory barriers. It was a political vision for the nation, not just for African Americans, and one that was tragically rejected by most white Americans. By the 1890s, white supremacists had effectively used legal and extralegal means, including mob violence and assassination, to disfranchise black voters.
Not until the mid-1960s, thanks to black struggles for the franchise (culminating in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965), do we see any significant national black participation in electoral politics. So when Shirley Chisholm became the first African American to seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972, most black voters had only recently had their rights restored. Indeed, Obama himself was only the third African American elected to the Senate since Reconstruction.
With the restoration of the black franchise came the resurrection of the radical Republican vision of ex-slaves, now seeking a home in the Democratic Party. Black folks down in Mississippi and Alabama called themselves “freedom democrats”, and the first black political convention in Gary, Indiana, in 1972, cast their role as “the vanguard in the struggle for a new society”. Jesse Jackson’s presidential bids of 1984 and 1988 embodied this vision. His “Rainbow Coalition” built alliances with Latinos and Asian Americans, supported Native American rights, opposed factory closings, supported a single-payer health plan, called for federal assistance to struggling farmers, promised to cut military expenditure by at least 20 per cent, and proposed expanding affirmative action for women, among other things. Like Obama now and Chisholm before him, Jackson mobilised millions alienated from politics, bent on moving the country in a new direction.
Clearly, Obama could not have won on Jackson’s platform, and yet his campaign embraces many of the same tenets – a state that intervenes on behalf of the downtrodden, expands democratic participation, and takes seriously the principle of equal protection under the law.
Of course, there is no guarantee that President Obama will not betray his political heritage, and his militarism already stands in sharp contrast to his hero, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who insisted that we cannot end poverty without ending war and the unbridled and violent march of global capital. Likewise, we will never have real economic stability unless the U.S. defends workers’ rights around the globe, supports environmental justice, democratises economic institutions and protects the rights of women and persecuted minorities.
So the question is this: will Obama be the first “freedom democrat” in the White House, or will he prove to be just another Democratic President who happens to be black? Moreover, will America embrace or reject freedom democracy, or what W.E.B. Du Bois has called “the gift of black folk”?
Robin D.G. Kelley is a Professor of History and American Studies at the University of Southern California. Author of many prize-winning books, including Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression. His latest is Theolonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (December 2008).
This essay first appeared in the Indian magazine Frontline.