Key Historic Moments Set The Stage For Obama The Democratic Party is on the cusp of nominating the first African-American presidential candidate from a major party. What were some of the key stops along the road to this historic moment? Columbia University professor Manning Marable explains.
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Key Historic Moments Set The Stage For Obama

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Key Historic Moments Set The Stage For Obama

Key Historic Moments Set The Stage For Obama

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TONY COX, host:

This is News & Notes. I'm Tony Cox.

This week, Democrats will make history when they become the first major party to nominate an African-American as their presidential candidate. After more than 200 years, America could elect its first black president. What got us to this moment? Here's NPR's Farai Chideya.

FARAI CHIDEYA: Many have tried.

Reverend JESSE JACKSON (Former Democratic Primary Candidate): Eight Democrats running for the nomination. This time around, you got a chance and you got a choice.

Former Representative SHIRLEY CHISHOLM (Democrat, New York): I am here today to tell them to take the men-only sign off of the White House door.

Mr. ALAN KEYES (Former Republican Presidential Hopeful): I pledge as president of the United States that I will return to the ban on homosexuals in the military, and I think that's where we need to be.

CHIDEYA: Barack Obama succeeded.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): I chose to run for president at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we can not solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together.

CHIDEYA: We're talking about the quest of African-Americans to win the nomination of a major political party. How did we get here? That is, how did black Americans reach a historic benchmark in political power?

The Emancipation Proclamation of 1865 at the end of the Civil War gave blacks in America full citizenship rights in theory, but women of all races still couldn't vote. And during Jim Crow, only a fraction of black Americans were able to use their voting rights. The civil rights movement and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 radically changed that picture. Vast numbers of black Americans who'd never voted before took to the polls.

In 1968, civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer mounted a rebellion within the Democratic Party and took her seat at the Chicago convention. Four years later, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, a Democrat from New York, ran for president.

Former Representative CHISHOLM: I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women's movement of this country, although I am a woman and I'm equally proud of that.

CHIDEYA: Some of the later candidates for the presidency included Democrats Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Carol Moseley-Braun, as well as Republican Alan Keyes.

For a closer look at how black Americans took center stage in the nation's politics, I'm joined by Manning Marable, a professor of history and public affairs at Columbia University. He's also the director of the Center For Contemporary Black History. Professor, welcome.

Dr. MANNING MARABLE (Professor, School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University): Thank you, Farai.

CHIDEYA: So let's start with Fannie Lou Hamer. Who was she, and briefly, how did she change the political atmosphere?

Dr. MARABLE: A civil rights organizer, Mrs. Hamer was one of the leaders of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. And in 1964 at Atlantic City, she challenged the racially discriminatory delegation that was sent by the state of Mississippi, that excluded blacks. Even though she won a symbolic victory at Atlantic City when Lyndon Johnson agreed to seat two members of the Mississippi Freedom Delegation, the Mississippi Freedom Democrats turned that deal down, and Mrs. Hamer said that representation without fairness or democracy is no representation at all. She established the foundations that Barack Obama built upon 40 years later, in terms of access and fairness within the Democratic Party's processes.

CHIDEYA: At the same time, we're talking about an era when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and many other people were also pushing for rights. Here's a little bit of him at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta just two months before his death.

Reverend MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. (Civil Rights Activist): I won't have any money to leave behind. I won't have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. That's all I want to say. If I can help somebody as I pass along, if I can cheer somebody with a word or song, if I can show somebody he's traveling wrong, then my living will not be in vain.

CHIDEYA: His living will not be in vain, that is what he said. And Barack Obama, do you think he's picking up the mantle or benefiting from Dr. King in any way?

Dr. MARABLE: Absolutely. Dr. King's fight for civil rights and social justice was based upon a phrase that he used in his very last public address, his mountaintop speech. He believed deeply in what he called the great wells of democracy; that the founding fathers, Washington and Jefferson and John Adams had established the foundations of democracy, but not the fulfillment of the values and the principles of what democratic life should be for all Americans. That women, blacks, and others who were marginalized by race and gender were excluded. And that what King fought for was a fully robust democracy where all voices and all people could be at the national table. That was the vision 40 years ago, and that's what King fought for and died for. And without King's sacrifice, a Barack Obama could not exist.

On the foundations of Dr. King, after the passage of the '65 Voting Rights Act, you saw this tremendous increase in the number of black elected officials. In 1964, there were only five black elected officials in Congress, and less than 100 throughout the entire country. By 1995, and the year of the Million Man March, you had over 10,000 black elected officials, over 40 blacks in Congress. So there was this tremendous increase.

The challenge, however, was that so much of black politics between 1965 to 1995 was race-based, and by that I mean that the majority of white Americans, for whatever reason, adamantly refused to support black candidates for public office. And the basic way that African-Americans got elected was through race-based politics. That is, through the creation of districts that were predominantly or largely either African-American or ethnic minority, that allowed blacks and Latinos to gain access and opportunity to elective office.

What is significant about Barack Obama is that he represents a new generation of elected officials who are post-black black politics, or nonracial politics, in that their success is not based or premised upon predominantly black electoral districts.

CHIDEYA: We're talking about with Barack Obama and with this win, in terms of the Democratic nomination, a black man taking the seat at the table. But also there have been some notable women. We've talked about Fannie Lou Hamer's activism, but Shirley Chisholm made a very pointed bid for the White House that really had a lot to do with her politics. That was 1972, and here she is.

Former Representative CHISHOLM: I stand here now without endorsements from many big-name politicians or celebrities or any other kind of prop. I do not intend to offer to you the tired and glib cliches, which for too long have been accepted part of our political life. I am the candidate of the people of America.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Former Representative CHISHOLM: And my presence before you now symbolizes a new era in American political history.

CHIDEYA: Who did she represent? She said she was a woman of the people.

Prof. MARABLE: Yes.

CHIDEYA: Not all of the people who are listening right now may know who she was. Who was she?

Dr. MARABLE: She was a brilliant and courageous fighter coming from Brooklyn, who in 1968 stunned this city by upsetting James Farmer, who ran as a Liberal and Republican candidate for that Congressional seat. And she went on to have a stellar career in Congress.

In 1972 when she ran for president, the vast majority of black elected officials, who were overwhelmingly male, did not endorse or support her. And even though her campaign ended several months after she gave this initial speech, without that campaign, Jesse Jackson's 1984 effort of the Rainbow Coalition could not have existed, because Shirley Chisholm paved the way. She showed that it was possible for an African-American with limited resources, with a strong core constituency, could run a credible campaign for the presidency.

CHIDEYA: You mentioned Jesse Jackson, and here's a little bit from his campaign in 1984.

Reverend JACKSON: We're bound by shared blood and shared sacrifices to go on divided one from another. We must turn from finger-pointing to clasped hands. We must share our burdens and our joys with each other once again. We must turn to each other and not on each other and choose higher ground.

CHIDEYA: That's Reverend Jesse Jackson at the 1984 Democratic National Convention. Why do you think he ran? Why do you think he got support? And why do you think he ultimately did not get the nomination?

Dr. MARABLE: We tend to look back at Jesse's efforts in '84 and '88 through the lens of the 21st century. And we do him a disservice. Jesse in so many ways paved the way for the emergence of this new generation of black elected officials. In several key ways.

First, Jesse's campaign in 1988 garnered 7.1 million popular votes, half of which were given by white voters. Secondly, Jesse won states, caucuses and primaries. In Vermont, Alaska, Arizona, where there are miniscule representations of blacks.

So even though Jesse came out of the civil rights milieu, and framed his politics largely around race-based issues that impacted blacks specifically and primarily, he nevertheless made tremendous efforts to reach Latinos and whites and Asian-American voters, and experienced limited success in this.

CHIDEYA: You have also talked at different times about the impact of a different person, who not only ran for president, but became president under what just a decade before for him would have been unthinkable circumstances. I'm talking about Nelson Mandela, who became South Africa's first black president after serving three decades in jail. Here's a little bit of his inaugural address.

Mr. NELSON MANDELA (Former President, South Africa): We enter into a covenant that we shall build a society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity. A rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.

CHIDEYA: Well how is it that a man who lives half a world away would have an impact on the idea of having a black man running for president in the U.S.?

Dr. MARABLE: I think in two ways. First, Nelson Mandela symbolizes the triumph of the human spirit over the forces of repression and exploitation in ways that almost no other human being on this planet have embodied. But he also offers white South Africans a way to expiate their guilt for apartheid and their support for white racial supremacy by following a policy of racial reconciliation, and not demanding revenge, but actually reaching out to whites to build together a new South Africa. That's what Mandela represents.

Barack represents in a parallel fashion the vanguard of a multi-ethnic transformation of leadership within American society. For white Americans to come to terms with the possibility that they can learn much from people of color in leadership positions. And that's what Barack Obama represents. He's the vanguard of that new multi-racial, multi-ethnic leadership.

CHIDEYA: We flash forward from this history we've talked about to 2004. Barack Obama was an Illinois state senator. Here is some of him at the 2004 Democratic convention.

(Soundbite of 2004 Democratic convention)

Senator OBAMA: If there's a child on the south side of Chicago who can't read, that matters to me even if it's not my child. If there's a senior citizen somewhere who can't pay for their prescription drugs, and have to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer even if it's not my grandparent. If there's an Arab-American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties.

(Soundbite of cheering)

CHIDEYA: You flash forward to a man who has been in Chicago on the ground, at Harvard Law School, where he headed the Law Review, first black person to do that. And then he ends up on the stage at the DNC. How did that transform America?

Dr. MARABLE: I think that the speech that Barack Obama delivered at the Democratic convention in 2004 directly lead to his senatorial victory that November. But more importantly, I think represented the opening of a new generation of women and men of color within the Democratic Party who represented the rise demographically of people of color in the United States. In the year 2050, the majority of the population of this country will consist of blacks, brown people, Asian-Pacific Island-Americans and immigrants from the third world.

So we're in a period of ethnic and racial transition in the country. And that new leadership class, drawn from immigrant populations, increasingly will come to dominate a number of areas, both in the public and the private sector. Barack represents the cutting edge of that transition of the rise of a non-white European leadership class, but is anchored to traditional American values and beliefs. Beliefs in hard work, in competitiveness, of support for the market. But at the same time, having a social justice commitment to the poor and to the truly disadvantaged.

CHIDEYA: One final thing. When you look ahead at this week, what if anything do you think will change for African-Americans in particular, not about Barack Obama as much, but just about the overall political sensibility in this country?

Dr. MARABLE: If Barack Obama's victory in winning the Democratic nomination and in possibly winning the presidency itself, if that simply translates into black faces in high places, then people will experience a devastating sense of loss, even if we win. It must translate into what I call a new civic covenant. A new commitment to making sure that all people, regardless of race and income, have a place in decision-making at the national table. Barack believes in this, but the question and challenge is, can he translate that belief into actual public policy after November, 2008? That's the challenge. And that is how we should judge his effectiveness.

CHIDEYA: Professor Marable, so glad to talk to you. Thank you.

Dr. MARABLE: Thank you.

COX: That was Manning Marable, professor of history and public affairs at Columbia University, and director of the Center for Contemporary Black History. He spoke with NPR's Farai Chideya.

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