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Amid Fear and Scrutiny, They Blazed Trails

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By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 23, 2008

Theirs is a diverse group of astronauts and athletes, of politicians and performers, but membership requirements are universal and rigid. If you're persistent enough to overturn 200 years of history and courageous enough to surmount stereotypes, you might have what it takes to become the first African American to achieve a position.

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If you manage it, here is some of what might await: threats, media scrutiny, jealousy and the pressure of representing an entire race. As first, you experience much of this alone.

There's L. Douglas Wilder, the first black elected governor, who in 1990 confessed to his Virginia staff: "Good God. If I blow this, there might never be a second." There's Carole Gist, the first black Miss USA, who was guarded by 24-hour security after she received a barrage of hate mail. There's Arthur Mitchell, the first black dancer in the New York City Ballet, who said his 1955 debut "sent the crowd into a frenzy, like a thunderbolt hit the theater." There's Ruby Bridges, the first black child to attend an all-white Southern elementary school, who walked past a wall of protesters each morning en route to her first-grade classroom.

Nine trailblazers recalled their stories for The Washington Post, their firsts spanning from the 1950s through the new millennium. They agreed that, as the country becomes more integrated and more tolerant, each successive first faces a more subtle form of resistance. But their responses also indicated that some things haven't changed -- all grappled with internal pressure and external scrutiny. Their collective experiences offer a window into what Barack Obama faces over the next several weeks.

Never has an African American come so close to the nation's ultimate symbol of power and achievement -- to a first that would stand as a testament to all the others. If Obama becomes president, other trailblazers will celebrate it as proof that their efforts made a lasting impact on race relations in America, they said.

"A black guy in the White House? That's the ultimate one," said Earl Lloyd, 80, who in 1950 became the first black man to play professional basketball in the NBA. "All of us who broke down barriers faced a lot of resistance, but now he's trying to break down the biggest barrier of all. I've got to tell you: When you're in the middle of that, it's a very scary feeling."

Obama has experienced the rewards and challenges of trailblazing before, when he became the first black president of the Harvard Law Review in 1990. He ran for the position in his second year of law school in part because he felt compelled, he said then, by "a door that needs to be kicked down." Once he was in office, the significance of his achievement took him by surprise.

Newspaper reporters traveled from New York and Los Angeles to interview him. A publisher offered him a book deal. Professors said the 28-year-old had an opportunity to redefine minority roles at Harvard.

Some whites on the law review complained that he favored black issues; some blacks complained that, like his predecessors, he overlooked them. Amid their criticisms, Obama worked 60 hours a week to run the review capably, calling the experience "one of the most challenging" in his young life.

"It sends out a strong signal," Obama said then. "It says that, when given the chance, African Americans can excel in even the most competitive of circumstances."

Eighteen years later, Obama finds himself first once again. And once again, he must confront a burden that other pioneers described as twofold.

First, there is the external resistance. Bridges spent a year in a classroom by herself in 1960 because the parents of other pupils at William Frantz Elementary in New Orleans refused to let their children learn with a black girl. Eight years later, to become the first black quarterback in professional football, Marlin Briscoe overcame coaches who refused to play him, teammates who hesitated to block for him and fans who insisted that he should remain a defensive back. "A quarterback needs to think," Briscoe said, "and everybody told me that a black player couldn't do that."


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