Obama's victory has carried us across an important frontier in our national journey | Commentary
January 21, 2009 · Updated 7:02 AM
By David M. Kennedy
Barack Obama has just made history. He has some important history behind him, too.
While hailed as an agent of change, when it comes to the matter of race, he is the beneficiary of several momentous changes that have already happened. His election to the presidency is as much a culmination as it is a breakthrough.
George Bush's catastrophically failed presidency is the immediate explanation for Obama's victory. But like so much in modern American society, Obama's path to the Oval Office has its origins in World War II — specifically, to a tense meeting in that same office on June 18, 1941.
A. Philip Randolph, head of the all-black Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, coolly informed President Franklin D. Roosevelt that he was prepared to march on Washington with 100,000 Negroes to demand equal employment opportunities for blacks in wartime defense plants. It wasn't the policy of the president of the United States to be ruled with a gun to his head, Roosevelt replied curtly: "Call it off, and we'll talk again." Randolph didn't blink.
A week later, a chastened Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, banning discrimination in defense industries on the basis of "race, creed, color, or national origin." Only then did Randolph call off the march.
As much as any single event can define such a moment, that meeting marked the beginning of the civil-rights era, which has now come to some kind of cadence, if not a climax. Randolph repudiated the kind of deferential supplication embraced by earlier black leaders like Booker T. Washington. His threat to take to the streets heralded a bold new black militancy based on mass organization and public demonstration, pointing the way to the tactics that Martin Luther King Jr. would later perfect.
Randolph's demands also signaled the broadening of the African-American political agenda from its traditional concern, the defense of legal rights in the Jim Crow South, to include the pursuit of opportunities throughout the wider industrial economy, in whatever region.
No less important, African-American ambitions were now fused for the first time in almost seven decades with the capacities, interests and will of a major political party. Roosevelt's was the first federal action on behalf of African-Americans since the end of Reconstruction almost three-quarters of a century earlier.
Executive Order 8802 bears comparison with the Emancipation Proclamation itself as a milestone on the road to racial equality. And fatefully, it came — however grudgingly — from the hand of a Democratic president.
Irony abounds in the emergence of the Democratic Party as a vehicle for racial justice. The Republican Party, after all, was born under the sign of abolition, and Abraham Lincoln was the Great Emancipator, while the slave South was a Democratic bastion, and many Civil War-era northern Democrats were "Copperheads," sympathetic to the Confederacy and openly opposed to emancipation.
After the abandonment of Reconstruction in 1876, the Democratic "Solid South" congealed. Excepting only 1928, when five of them gagged on Al Smith's Catholicism, all 11 of the former Confederate states unwaveringly voted for the Democratic presidential candidate for the next 72 years.
Then in 1948, the implications of what Executive Order 8802 portended started to become clear. The preceding year, the Truman administration had published "To Secure These Rights," a kind of executive summary of Gunnar Myrdal's exhaustive 1944 exposé of racial inequality, "An American Dilemma."
Daring his party to match deeds with words, Hubert Humphrey, the crusading young mayor of Minneapolis, succeeded in inserting a strong civil-rights plank into the 1948 Democratic platform. That triggered an exodus of southern delegates and the formation of the States' Rights Democratic Party, or Dixiecrats, who nominated the cantankerous South Carolina segregationist Strom Thurmond for the presidency.
In only one state outside the old Confederacy (Kentucky) did Thurmond poll more than 3,000 votes. But he ran strongly throughout Jim Crow country and carried Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina. The lesson was clear: the South was fissile after all.
Race was the issue that could split at least parts of the Solid South from a party identified with racial equality and perhaps put the region as a whole into play. Lyndon Johnson understood the cold logic of that calculus when he remarked on signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that "we have just lost the South forever."
Barry Goldwater drove the lesson home later that year, when he added Georgia (and his home state of Arizona) to Thurmond's totals. Those results demonstrated the promise of the "Southern Strategy" that turned the South newly solid for Republicans and elected Presidents Nixon, Reagan, and Bush 41 and 43.
Against this background, it's no surprise that America's first black president didn't arise from the party of Lincoln, as that party's 19th-century history might have augured, but from the 20th-century party of Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Johnson.
Without their prior commitments to civil rights, and without the opening of opportunities for African-Americans that their policies ensured (including, let it be said, the vexed matter of affirmative action), it is impossible to imagine Obama's candidacy, let alone his victory, not to mention his very biography, as well as the biographies of the millions of African-Americans who in the last generation have ascended the ladder of opportunity and entered wholesale into walks of life previously barred to them.
And without the transformation of the South into a modern, vibrant society shaped in large measure by the civil-rights movement's liberating energies, it is equally impossible to imagine the old Confederacy emancipated at last from its electoral thralldom to the trump-card of race.
A comparison with Kennedy is instructive. He too was the legatee of policies that originated in the Roosevelt era. Roosevelt's three Republican predecessors, Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, appointed only eight Catholics to the 207 vacancies on the federal bench between 1921 and 1933.
In the next eight years, Roosevelt named 52 Catholics to the 197 federal judgeships that he filled — part of a deliberate strategy to shepherd into the Democratic fold the sons and daughters of those great immigrant communities that had arrived on American shores a generation or two earlier.
When one of those Catholic immigrant sons eventually ascended to the presidency, it was again scarcely accidental that he belonged to the party that had helped usher his co-religionists into the American mainstream, a precinct from which their forebears had been notoriously excluded.
Sense of vindication
American Catholics who long felt themselves on the margins of the nation's life, who harbored bitter memories of "No Irish Need Apply" and arson attacks on parochial schools and even on convents, now felt not merely a sense of vindication, but of belonging, and of release from long-held grievances.
The psychological impact of Kennedy's presidency on the American Catholic community was transformative, and it is reasonable to expect that Obama's election will work a comparable transformation among African-Americans.
John F. Kennedy was the first Catholic president. He was also the last Catholic president, if by that characterization we mean a political personality defined by his faith. Who cared then or remembers now that Thomas Eagleton, George McGovern's ill-starred first vice-presidential running mate in 1972, was a Catholic, as was his replacement, Sargent Shriver? What political weight did John Kerry's Catholicism carry in 2004?
So too Barack Obama will prove to be both the first black president and the last black president. Obama's victory has carried us across an important frontier in our national journey. It's a frontier that shimmered on the horizon of a distant future in 1941, one that we will never cross again.
He is both history-made and history-making, as we are permitted to believe that our national sensitivity to race has already gone much of the way of an earlier generation's anxieties about Catholicism, redefining the terms of American identity and social membership, and fulfilling at long last the Founders' promise of a nation where all men and women are created equal.
— David M. Kennedy is a part-time resident of San Juan Island. He is the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History at Stanford University and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize in history. This commentary was written for Bloomberg the day after the general election.