The moment when Hillary Rodham Clinton suspended the state-by-state roll call vote she had demanded, moving for the 2008 Democratic Convention to nominate Senator Barack Obama by acclamation, was extraordinary. Network cameras, inevitably, zeroed in on African-Americans, young and old, beaming, as tears poured down their cheeks.
For the first time in American history, a major political party had nominated a black man to be president. Critics have ample time left to bash Obama for various shortcomings. But this week, anyone who cares about justice, equality, democracy and the American dream can rejoice that Barack Obama was nominated to lead the Democratic Party, once the voice of America’s ugliest racists.
Yes, we can appreciate the extent of America’s turnaround on race by exploring the Democrats’ shameful history. America’s progressive party today – which boasts of being the world’s oldest continuous democratic political party – was founded by Thomas Jefferson, the prince of American paradox, whose slaves waited on him as he wrote the magical words that would eventually free them: “all men are created equal.” By contrast, the Republican Party is the party of Abraham Lincoln, founded in the 1850s to abolish slavery.
Thus, before the Civil War, as the party of the South, of a weak central government, and of Jeffersonian liberty, the Democratic Party defended Southern plantation owners’ freedom to own slaves. After the Civil War, Democrats celebrated the “Lost Cause,” misremembering the attempt to keep human beings enslaved as a noble fight against Big Government and for private prerogative. In the 1930s, the Democratic Party was the party of the powerful Southern Senators who opposed federal laws banning lynching.
In the 1960s, the Democratic Party was the party of the powerful Southern Senators who opposed the Civil Rights Movement. Some tried torpedoing the now legendary 1964 Civil Rights Act by adding a sweeping amendment promising women equality too. These Southern racists assumed their fellow sexists in the North would never accept such an absurdity. The strategy backfired. The 1964 Act has benefited women and African-Americans.
Of course, by the 1930s, thanks to Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Democratic Party was becoming the party of the forgotten, the oppressed, the left behind. For three decades, Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, tried propping up the collapsing coalition between Northern Democratic liberals, including blacks, and the recalcitrant Southern racists. When Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, he understood that the Democrats would lose the white South for decades – resulting in today’s diversity-obsessed party, now led by the son of a white woman who married a black African.
Barack Obama has campaigned as a leader of all Americans not the great black hope. But, inevitably, in multicultural democracies, the lines blur. True, Obama’s biggest problem has been being too green – inexperienced – not too black. True, he is of a new post-Baby Boom generation, freed of Jesse Jackson’s anger, Al Sharpton’s antics, Louis Farakkhan’s hatred. But whenever an individual from a distinct, historically oppressed, subgroup bursts through a glass ceiling, it is an individual and group achievement. A popular if unprovable story about America’s first Jewish Cabinet member, Oscar Straus, recalls that when President Theodore Roosevelt met leaders of the American Jewish community celebrating the appointment, he told them what they wanted to hear. TR insisted: “I chose Oscar Straus because he was the best man for the job.” Then, the legendary banker Jacob Schiff, now old and deaf, thanked the President, saying that when President Roosevelt told him it was time to have a Jew in the Cabinet, Oscar Straus was the obvious choice.
And so, with Barack Obama having received the Democratic nomination, Americans and freedom loving people everywhere honor his individual achievement – along with the welcome breakthrough for people of color and oppressed minorities everywhere. We toast apostles of freedom like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, whose love of liberty laid the groundwork to free their country from the great contradiction of slavery. We recall the millions who suffered through slavery, and the 600,000 who died in the Civil War to end America’s original sin. We can finally bury “Jim Crow,” the horrific system Southerners then improvised to imprison freed blacks in a maze of local laws keeping them second class citizens. We mock the slavery-loving nineteenth-century Southerners like Vice President John C. Calhoun of South Carolina and the “Segregation Now, Segregation Forever,” twentieth-century racists like Alabama Governor George Wallace, who tried their hardest to put off this day. We mourn that martyrs like the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. — and countless other anonymous civil rights activists — never lived to see this day. And we remember the four young black college students who, when asked how long they had been planning their sit in to desegregate Woolworth’s lunch counters in 1960, replied “Our whole lives.”
So many of us, black and white, Democrats and Republicans, Americans and Canadians, have waited our whole lives for this moment. Barack Obama’s slogan “yes we can” is a hope and a prayer, a challenge and a yardstick. Much work remains to be done. America is not perfect, racism is certainly not eliminated. But this 47-year-old self-described “skinny kid with a funny name” had proven to us all that “yes we can” change things for the better; and “yes we can” live long enough to see things improve. No matter what happens the rest of the campaign or for the rest of his life, for this achievement alone, Barack Obama deserves and has earned historical immortality.
by Gil Troy
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal and a Visiting Scholar affiliated with the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.
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Copyright 2008 LA Progressive