By Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 10, 2008
"Obama Makes History," said the headline in this newspaper on Wednesday, a statement of the obvious, but no less momentous for that. Everybody knows it's true -- nearly everybody has been saying it since Tuesday night. But what does it mean to make history?
David Blight, a Yale historian, has a useful definition: People feel history is being made by events that they realize at once will alter their own lives. "What an extraordinary moment of collective memory we are having!" he says on the telephone from New Haven, Conn., comparing it to Pearl Harbor, the assassination of John F. Kennedy and 9/11.
"This is a special moment, and there aren't a lot of them," says David Nasaw, a historian at the City University of New York. He recounts an e-mail he sent Wednesday to his two grown children: "Whatever happens, enjoy this day, because a moment like this comes once in a lifetime."
History is made in two ways: By dramatic occurrences, often surprises, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989; and by the slow accretion of small changes over long periods. These are harder to notice while they're happening, but often more significant than the isolated, surprising events. The two are usually interrelated. Says David Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian at Stanford: "The combination of great, inexorable forces on the one hand, and contingency, chance and randomness on the other -- that's what keeps guys like me in business."
That combination made Barack Obama the soon-to-be 44th president of the United States. The "great forces" at work in this case began with the transformation of the status of black people in American life, a painfully slow process that began to gather real force in the prelude to World War II. Jesse Owens's gold medals at the Berlin Olympic Games of 1936, then Joe Louis's first-round knockout of the German Max Schmeling in 1938 were triumphs by black Americans in the face of Nazi propaganda about the superiority of the Aryan race. Both events excited widespread American patriotism centered on black accomplishments.
In June 1941, for the first time since the Civil War era, the federal government took formal action in support of the rights of black people. Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, requiring the defense industries then preparing the country for war to provide equal employment opportunities. Roosevelt was pressed to issue this order by A. Philip Randolph of the sleeping car porters' union, who had threatened a demonstration by "100,000 Negroes" in the streets of Washington. The order and subsequent government support for civil rights eroded the Republican Party's claim to the loyalty of black Americans as "the party of Lincoln," Kennedy says. In its place came the alliance between blacks and Democrats that was so important on Tuesday.
Blacks fought gallantly in World War II, then Harry Truman integrated the armed forces. Black entertainers and athletes made spaces for themselves in areas of American life that had rarely if ever seen dark faces before. In Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the Supreme Court embraced racial integration in the public schools. Black Americans launched a civil rights movement that eventually produced laws ending legally enforced segregation and allowing African Americans to vote.
All these made possible the rise of black America over the last four decades. The country now has a large African American middle class populated by an unprecedented number of black professionals. African Americans began to thrive in politics: In the 1960s, there were hundreds of black elected officials in America; today there are about 10,000. In the same brief period, the demographics of the United States were transformed. Seventy-four percent of the voters in 2008 were white, compared with 90 percent just 32 years ago, when Jimmy Carter was elected president.
Another "great force" is apparent to any American with her eyes open. John Morton Blum, 87, speaks of the decline of "race consciousness" in America, which he has watched among his students at Yale since the 1950s. Beginning in the '60s, Blum observes, young adults have been steadily less concerned about race, and today seem all but indifferent to racial differences. "The change has already occurred," Blum says. "It's profoundly important if you think about the history of race in America."
The unexpected "random" event that combined with those great forces to produce the United States' first black president was the emergence of Barack Obama.
Here, the role of chance is striking. One event put Obama in a position to run for president this year, and he had no control over it: his selection to give the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, one of the best-received political speeches in recent history. Why was Obama chosen? Because Mary Beth Cahill thought it was a good idea.
Cahill managed Sen. John F. Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign. In a recent conversation, she recounted how numerous Democratic politicians volunteered for the role, all conscious of the career boost that keynoters had gotten in the past. Many, including Obama, sent emissaries to Cahill and her colleagues to make a pitch. A governor, an Iraq veteran, a woman were all considered, but only Obama was a fresh, young face. Moreover, in the spring of 2004 he appeared to be in a tough race for the U.S. Senate (he eventually won easily), and Kerry wanted to help strengthen Senate Democrats if he could.
"I just decided to pick him," Cahill remembered. "I called Kerry to discuss it . . . and he said 'fine.' " She had talked to Obama on the phone but never met him. The rest -- no way to resist this -- is history.
Obama's luck continued. His principal rivals for the Senate in 2004 -- the strongest Democrat in the primary, and then his Republican opponent -- both withdrew after the release of embarrassing personal details from divorce and child-custody proceedings. Obama won in a walk.
Next came the presidential campaign, where skill and cunning were more important than luck, though the good fortune continued. By the end of the primary season, Obama was a seasoned politician with a reputation for great oratory, now a hallmark of his ascent.
David Blight of Yale puts Obama in the tradition of African American orators who established "the leadership of language" when other tools of leadership were not available to blacks. Frederick Douglass was the first in this line. Obama often alluded to Douglass this year. At rallies in the closing days of the campaign, he urged supporters to keep working to the end: "Power concedes nothing without a fight." Douglass said in 1856: "Power never concedes anything without a demand."
Fittingly, Obama is a student of history who regularly weaves historical references into his oratory. In his 2004 speech in Boston, he quoted the Declaration of Independence and the slogan from the Great Seal of the United States, E Pluribus Unum-- from many, one. When introduced in the 18th century, this was a reference to the "many" colonies that banded together to become one new nation. In modern times it is more often seen as a reference to the American melting pot.
The victory speech Obama gave in Grant Park in Chicago on Tuesday night was chockablock with historical allusions, some obvious, some subtle. He used that slogan again: "Out of many, we are one." He acknowledged the strength his campaign drew "from the millions of Americans who volunteered and organized and proved that . . . a government of the people, by the people, and for the people has not perished from this Earth." That last phrase, of course, was from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Obama recalled how the nation managed to "conquer fear itself" in the Great Depression, an allusion to the admonition in Franklin D. Roosevelt's first inaugural address: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
And he echoed language from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: "The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term. But, America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you, we as a people will get there."
In his famous "Mountaintop" speech in Memphis, delivered the night before he was killed in 1968, King said: "I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!"
Clement Price of Rutgers describes the president-elect as the triumphant culmination of a long tradition of "first Negroes" -- the first blacks to hold particular positions in American society. This is a category that has long intrigued African Americans, Price says, but hasn't attracted much attention from whites -- until now. With Obama's election, Price notes, many white Americans "have joined the celebrations for the first time."
Roger Wilkins, professor emeritus at George Mason University and a former government official long active in the civil rights movement, says he can't help comparing Obama to the greatest of the first Negroes from his own childhood, Jackie Robinson, the first black Major League Baseball player. "Jack was out in space that no black person in this country had occupied before, and a lot hung on how well he did," Wilkins remembers. "He did very well, and a lot of barriers began to crumble." Wilkins expects a similar reaction to Obama. "If he is the person I believe him to be," he says, Obama will erode the racist inclinations still evident in parts of white America.
David Kennedy of Stanford goes further, suggesting that the first black president could also be the last -- not literally, but in the way John F. Kennedy was the first and the last "Catholic president." Kennedy's religion provoked controversy when he ran in 1960. But when another Catholic, Kerry, ran four years ago, his religion was "not a factor," Kennedy observes. Perhaps now we can look forward to a time when race is similarly insignificant, he suggests.
"That sounds premature," replies Price of Rutgers. Obama is atypical -- a self-described "mutt," son of an African father and a white Kansan mother. Obama masterfully introduced his loving mother and white grandparents "to help him navigate his way into the hearts and minds of white Americans. In the future we will see if a person of color who does not have those navigational advantages can succeed in the same way."
For the moment, the racial aspect of Obama's victory has become a source of pride, and not just for black Americans. In his elegant concession speech Tuesday night, John McCain was straightforward: "This is an historic election, and I recognize the special significance it has for African Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight." America, McCain added, has come a long way from "the cruel and frightful bigotry" that was once typical.
On Wednesday, President Bush addressed the issue from the Rose Garden: "Many of our citizens thought they would never live to see that day," he said. "This moment is especially uplifting for a generation of Americans who witnessed the struggle for civil rights with their own eyes, and four decades later see a dream fulfilled."
Most of the real history is still to be made, of course. Obama's election may have the biggest impact on children who will grow up taking a black president for granted.
Johnetta Cole, former president of the historically black Spelman College in Atlanta, says she spent part of Friday morning visiting Beverly Hall, the superintendent of schools in Atlanta. "I told Beverly, for every young child in the Atlanta school system, a miraculous thing just happened," Cole says. "Not every black child, every child. . . . This is of course monumental for us as African Americans, but it is extraordinary for anyone who breathes."