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Senator Obama and the Future of American Politics

On the Shoulders of Giants: Senator Obama and the Future of American Politics

by Paul Ortiz,
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Sen. Barack Obama ran an amazing, historic campaign. So amazing, in fact, that initial attempts to calmly analyze his victory have generally fallen short. Some media and academic experts talk as if Barack Obama came out of nowhere. There have been claims that his triumph is without historical precedent, and that the tactics and strategies his campaign employed on the way to victory were sui generis. Other commentators argue that Obama as a politician represents a complete break from earlier generations of African-American leaders. A day after the election, Time Magazine's Joe Klein asserted that Obama's post-racial victory opened up a brand new space for political participation in our society. Klein writes, "It is a place where the primacy of racial identity - and this includes the old Jesse Jackson version of black racial identity - has been replaced by the celebration of pluralism, of cross-racial synergy."[1]

These efforts to place Obama outside of history are only possible in a society that treats history like yesterday's garbage. In reality, Senator Obama comes from a rich tradition of peoples who have fought and died for freedom in the Americas and in the broader Atlantic world. Yes, Obama's campaign was sophisticated and run on a base of youthful energy. Most of the tactics of this campaign however were borrowed from prior social movements, including the civil rights and labor movements, the women's movement and old-school political campaigning. For example mi esposa canvassed for the Obama campaign four or five days a week for several months in Gainesville. My wife learned many of her organizing skills - as I did - working with the United Farm Workers of America many years ago.

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Likewise, there were many Obama activists who had campaigned for the Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988. It is impossible to imagine Senator Obama's victory without the precedent of Jackson's Rainbow Coalition. The Rainbow excited and recruited tens of thousands of gay, Latino, Native American, white, Asian, and African-Americans into electoral politics, social movements and union organizing in the US in the 1980s. The Rainbow sustained and supported numerous progressive politicians, including Paul Wellstone, Tammy Baldwin and Harold Washington.[2] The Rainbow Coalition - and Jackson as leader - had many limitations.[3] Even so, the organization provided one of the few spaces for progressive movement organizing to take place in the Age of Reagan. The Rainbow increased working-class voter registration, promoted Shirley Chisholm for vice president, stood in solidarity with the Pittston coal strike, and was a counterweight to the conservative Democratic Leadership Council. Rainbow activist Ronald Walters remembers the sense of excitement during Jackson's campaigns:

"No one else at that level was talking about environmental racism, 'no first use' of nuclear weapons; antiapartheid (remember, the ANC was a 'terrorist organization'); the Arab-Israeli situation." No other candidate had an economic policy based on major investment and cuts in the military, a program Bill Clinton would run on in 1992 (though abandon forthwith). None advocated extension of the Congressional health plan to all Americans. None regarded gay rights as inherent in a larger moral claim and not simply something to be pandered to. None twinned race and class so naturally."[4]

Progressive Asian-American activists played a key role in the development of the Rainbow.[5] Butch Wing recalled that Jackson "... really impressed us because he really wanted to involve other communities.... His support base and experience was in the African-American community, but he expanded. He began the conversation about coalitions."[6] "More importantly," One Asian-American writer to the New York Times noted in 1984, "the Jackson candidacy has opened up a necessary dialogue between the black and Asian-American communities."[7] Quite a few of these activists, including newly elected San Francisco Board of Supervisors member Eric Mar, ended up as successful politicians and community organizers working for or endorsing Obama. Eddie Wong looked back at his time with the Rainbow Coalition as formative in his contemporary work with the Asian and Pacific Islander Leadership Council for Senator Obama:

"Twenty years ago, as I stood in the bitter cold in a parking lot in Sioux City, Iowa, I saw a sight I thought I'd never see. A crowd of white meat-packers, big beefy men and their wives and children, shuffled their feet in quiet anticipation. They shielded their eyes against the low winter sun, stamping their feet for warmth on the frozen ground. They were waiting to hear my boss, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States."[8]

Joe Klein's clumsy effort to shape-shift Jesse Jackson into a black-identity-politician-only-concerned-about-black-people ignores Jackson's longstanding commitment to the struggles of Latino farm workers, poor whites and others. Who can forget the photograph of Jesse tenderly comforting an emaciated César Chávez during the farm labor leader's Fast For Love or his beautiful oration at César's funeral in 1993? It was only fitting that Jackson sent a congratulatory message to President-elect Obama that reflected his own understanding of movement history: "The martyrs and marchers worked to tear down the walls that kept us apart. Now Obama has access to the bridge to bring us together. This bridge leads us closer to closing the disparities and inequality in our national family. We have been led to the promised land. But we still have work to do. YES WE CAN is his slogan. President Obama, "Yes we will."[9]

Jackson's letter reminds us that Senator Obama's campaign victory was fueled not solely by new youth activists, but by an intergenerational social movement of campaign workers. If you look deeply into the ranks of "Obama's Army," you will find veterans of the UFW, CORE and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) of the 1960s. Juan Williams suggested that many older African-Americans would refuse to vote for Obama. The Fox News analyst predictably blamed the "black political and community activists still rooted in the politics of the 1960s civil rights movement ..." for their opposition to the Illinois senator.[10] Yet, when I took a team of University of Florida students to do oral histories of the Sunflower County Freedom Summer Reunion in Mississippi in early September, we found that SNCC veterans - black and white - were unanimous in their support for Obama.[11] The highlight of the reunion was a rousing address given by SNCC icon Congressman John Lewis, whose major theme was that we should all return to our home communities and cast our ballots for Barack Obama. Contra Juan Williams, the politics of the 1960s movements made this presidential moment possible. The Sunflower County gathering in the middle of the Mississippi Delta reminds us that the mainstream media will try to freeze out of the Obama victory party the millions of grassroots Obama supporters who do not listen to NPR or subscribe to The New York Times. This will be done in order to convince the new president to veer right in domestic and foreign policy. Progressives must fight like hell to make sure that this does not happen. Never forget that our elders in unions as well as Christian, Islamic and Jewish civic organizations have been fighting for social justice all of their lives. This is their time, too.

Black Florida and Barack Obama

For all of the talk of a newly tolerant white electorate, the majority of white people in America voted for John McCain. In contrast, 96 percent of African-Americans who voted cast their ballots for Senator Obama. Why did so many older black people support a candidate whom many in the mainstream media categorized as "post racial"? In Florida, black voters helped Obama become the first northern Democrat to carry Florida since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This is especially poignant as Florida was one of the toughest of all Jim Crow states and African-Americans have had their votes stolen in the Sunshine State more times than any historian can count. Black Floridians endured massacres at long-forgotten places like Rosewood, Ocoee and Wildwood. Florida boasted the highest lynching rate in the nation, and the state's vicious penal system earned it the moniker of "American Siberia." African-American, Jewish and Italian immigrants frequently found themselves trapped in a system of debt peonage designed to bolster the profits of white business supremacy.[12]

In spite of all of these obstacles, black Floridians organized numerous movements for justice and created an expressive culture of survival that produced some of the finest literature and music, along with some of the greatest social justice activists of the 20th century. Of the many Floridians who prepared the way for America's First Black President, we'll start with Zora Neale Hurston. A child of an all-black town and an artist of the sublime, Hurston's magnificent novels, such as "Their Eyes Were Watching God," upheld the dignity of all women. Her anthropological works, such as "Mules and Men," defended the humanity of impoverished turpentine workers, phosphate miners and sharecroppers. The truly forgotten Americans. Who has ever led a life more useful than Zora did? She died in poverty, and her literature is now read by millions worldwide! Barack Obama stands on the shoulders of Zora Neale Hurston.

As we marvel at the wit and grace of Michelle Obama, let us not forget perhaps the greatest Floridian of all, Mary McCleod Bethune. The child of former slaves, Bethune founded the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls (which later became Bethune-Cookman College), in 1904. A tireless diplomat of education, Bethune became a citizen of the world and had numerous honors bestowed on her that were normally reserved for heads of state. Bethune was also a president of the National Association of Colored Women, and she became an adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the face of Ku Klux Klan violence aimed at her, Mrs. Bethune urged black Daytonans to "Eat Your Bread without Butter, But Pay your poll taxes and vote!!" Barack Obama stands on the shoulders of Mary McCleod Bethune.

As we marvel at the politically engaged youth volunteers in the Obama campaign, let us remember two young black Floridians, Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore. In 1934, they organized the first NAACP county branch in Brevard County. They were school teachers dedicated to educational equality. They were also extraordinary political activists who knew the value of community organizing. In the late 1940s, the Moores helped organize one of the most effective voter registration campaigns in the history of the United States. (Without using the Internet!) In 1951, as they celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary over the Christmas holiday, they were assassinated by the Ku Klux Klan. Barack Obama stands on the shoulders of Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore.

Black Florida has given this nation some of its greatest community and social justice organizers. James Weldon Johnson, Howard Thurman, Eartha White, Patricia Stephens Due - the list is virtually endless. For the sake of brevity, I'd like to discuss just one more great Floridian. Born in 1889 in Crescent City, A. Philip Randolph was one of the most important labor leaders in American history. Randolph was the founding president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a union that African-American railroad workers created through twelve long years of struggle and sacrifice (1925-1937). Randolph used the power and numbers of the union to threaten a mass march on Washington in 1941 to protest against discrimination against black workers in wartime industry factories. President Roosevelt begged Randolph not to march, arguing that it would damage the US war effort. Randolph called off the march in return for a guarantee of the creation of a federal commission that would investigate job discrimination claims - the Fair Employment Practices Committee. Numerous members of the union went on to become pivotal civil rights activists and political leaders, including C.L. Dellums (father of Rep. Ron Dellums), and E.D. Nixon, a leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955.

In 1963, Randolph and several key African-American labor leaders including Bayard Rustin and Cleveland Robinson, president of New York's powerful District 65 Union, planned a March on Washington that was initially to be aimed at the AFL-CIO's headquarters in protest of union discrimination against African-Americans and other minority workers. John McCain's campaign accused Barack Obama of being a Socialist. A. Philip Randolph WAS a lifelong socialist. In fact, the March on Washington was made possible by the rank-and-file organizing work of many Socialist organizers.[13] When this Native Son of Florida proposed marching on the Capitol Mall, President Kennedy - like Roosevelt - asked Randolph to call the march off. Randolph refused and demanded that Kennedy more forcefully push for a new Civil Rights Act. But Randolph and the other organizers were thinking about much more than civil rights. They titled this event: The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Asa Philip Randolph's speech at the March on Washington initially received far greater attention than Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a Dream" speech. In his address, Randolph forcefully discussed the legacy of slavery, as well as the economic dimensions of civil rights. He asserted: "The sanctity of private property takes second place to the sanctity of the human personality." This is a line we would do well to remember today. Also, please note this striking passage: "It falls to the Negro to reassert this proper priority of values because our ancestors were transformed from human personalities into private property. It falls to us to demand new forms of social planning, to create full employment, and to put automation at the service of human needs, not at the service of profits - for we are the first victims of unemployment." Prophetic words indeed that point the way towards a new understanding of economics. President-elect Barack Obama Stands on the shoulders of A. Philip Randolph.

The Myth of Post-Racialism

The idea that we've moved to a post-racial period in American social history is undermined by an avalanche of recent events. Hurricane Katrina. The US Supreme Court's dismantling of Brown vs. Board of Education and the resegregation of American schools. The Clash of Civilizations thesis that promotes the idea of a War against Islam. The backlash facing immigrant workers. A grotesque prison industrial complex.[14] A brilliant misdirection centering on race took place in the decade between 1998 and 2008. While Americans were being robbed blind and primed for yet another bailout of the banks and investment sectors, they were treated to new evidence from Fox News and poverty experts that the great moral threats facing the nation were greedy union workers, black single mothers, Latino gangbangers and illegal immigrants. When the $2.7 trillion-dollar bailout bill came due, the big investors yelled: "gotcha!" No welfare reform for Wall Street. Hard work, like taxes, is for the little people.

Was Sen. Barack Obama's victory an example of post-racial politics? Not according to the exit polls, which demonstrate the crucial role of race and class in this election.[15] Black and Latino support was crucial in Obama's victory in key states including Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico and Florida. Nationally, 55 percent of white Americans voted for Sen. John McCain, with the white college graduate vote split nearly evenly for the two major contenders.[16] In sharp contrast, 67 percent of Latinos and 63 percent of Asian-Americans voted for Obama. In Florida, Obama won a remarkably high percentage of the Hispanic vote - currently estimated at 57 percent - even though some conservative Cubanos in South Florida featured car bumper stickers that read: "Cuba Voted for Change in 1959."[17] On the day after the election, the Miami Herald observed that Senator Obama was the "First Democrat[ic] candidate to Win Florida's Hispanic Vote."[18]

On the day before the election, however, the Duval County School Board in Jacksonville joined what appears to be a growing racial backlash in the US.[19] The board voted along racial lines to keep the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest High School in Jacksonville.[20] White board members ensured that the name of the Ku Klux Klan leader and slave trader will be proudly displayed over a school with a majority-black student body. The school was originally named in Forrest's honor as an early white protest against the Brown vs. Board Supreme Court ruling that outlawed school segregation. This is another reminder that America's past continues to informs its present.

Before we go too deeply into exploring the idea of post-racialism, I have some preguntos. What do we actually mean by post-racial? As progressives, we fight for equality, dignity and economic security. Is racial equality the same as post-racial equality, and what would a post-racial society really look like? Would such a society require that we dispense with Toni Morrison, Martín Espada, Alice Walker, Herman Melville and others whose greatest works center on the experience of race and the human condition? Would the post-racial utopia stop us from celebrating El Dia de los Muertos because it is too "Mexican"? Would such a society demand that I trade in my African-influenced Arturo Sandoval and Miles Davis albums for Michael Bolton? (No disrespect intended.) Does post-racial history mean that plantation tours will celebrate the wealth of the big house while avoiding the slave quarters in order to make everyone feel good about themselves? Suddenly, the post-racial utopia sounds downright Orwellian.

Latinos and Politics

In hindsight, the Latino-led labor insurrections of 2006 provided the first hints of the beginning of a sea-change in American as well as Florida politics - one that is even now only just beginning to be felt. The mass marches and walkouts provide a glimpse of the aspirations of major segments of the Latina/Latino working class even as they demonstrate these workers' centrality to our economic life. Latino workers led strikes even prior to the big May Day demonstrations. ''In South Florida and Immokalee, things (harvesting) pretty much ground to a halt," said G. Ellis Hunt Jr., the president of Hunt Bros. Inc., a Lake Wales grower and packinghouse owner with more than 5,000 grove acres split equally between Polk and Immokalee."[21] Lucas Benitez of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in South Florida explained that Latino farm laborers were engaged in a protracted struggle for wages and dignity. "It's a fundamental problem in Immokalee that the workers get no respect from the growers," the farm worker leader noted. "The growers think they have peons, not employees. To find solutions to other problems, we must break down that barrier." Demonstrators in cities such as Fort Meyers vigorously expressed their opposition to US House Resolution 4437, which threatened to turn undocumented workers and their supporters into felons. Many observers compared H.R. 4437 to the infamous Fugitive Slave Act. The days of the silent, long-suffering Latino worker are over.

The 2008 election demonstrates that we no longer live in a world where race is a black and white thing. From Florida to Washington State, Latino working-class political power is on the rise. Much of the support for Barack Obama came from Latinos in labor organizations such as SEIU, Unite-HERE, AFSCME and other unions, as well as the reenergized Los Angeles, New York and Chicago labor federations. The head of the Los Angeles Labor Federation, Maria Elena Durazo, was one of the first major Latina leaders to endorse Obama during the Democratic primaries. A former migrant field worker, Durazo's parents were activists in the United Farm Workers and her family learned community organizing skills from César Chávez and Delores Huerta. Explaining her endorsement, Durazo noted, "'On a personal level [Obama] embodies the slogan we use a lot, César Chávez's 'Si, se puede.' (Yes, we can.") He has proved it by the way he inspires voters."[22]

Latino civil rights organizations such as the Mexican American Legal Defense fund were early endorsers of the Obama campaign. On a larger scale, the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, composed of 26 major Latino organizations, denounced the 2008 Republican Party Platform "for its support of anti-immigrant unworkable immigration policies ... that tear families apart, divide communities, and fail our nation."[23] These organizations defined the 2008 presidential election in part as a struggle against racism and xenophobia. If the Democratic Party retreats from this struggle it will pay dearly in 2010.

Richard Nixon's Southern Strategy is reaching a point of diminishing returns for the GOP. The strategy of winning elections by taking white votes from the Democrats by playing on white racial fears failed for a variety of reasons. First of all, "non-white" voters are increasing in significance all across the country. In addition, many so-called white Reagan Democrats have been driven out of the Republican Party by the GOP's embrace of deregulation, privatization and religious fundamentalism. The youth vote generally trended towards Obama, but, lacking organizational affiliations, the future voting habits of these voters is unclear. Most hopefully, white union members voted 67 percent in favor of the Illinois senator. In These Times rightly notes that "If more voters belonged to a union, Obama would have won more decisively, even among white voters." Students of community organizing, take note please.[24]

Community Organizers Needed!

The rise of Barack Obama to the office of president of the United States is a breathtaking event, but it is not an individual achievement. Senator Obama, of all people, understands this, and this is why he emphasizes time and time again his background as a community organizer. His opponents showed their true stripes by denigrating this aspect of Obama's resume. The new GOP understands community organizing to be the anti-thesis of the greed-first hyper-individualism they peddle as a philosophy. A. Philip Randolph was a community organizer, and so too is Maria Elena Durazo. Each of them represents a potentiality and a possibility that a great mass movement - such as that proposed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 - will rise up to end all excuses for social and economic cruelty that currently pass for politics in this country. We live in a time of economic crisis and uncertainty, yes. However, it is also a time - much like the early 1930s - when the "experts" in Wall Street and in the Ivory Tower that normally control our society have been knocked down a few rungs on the ladder. It is currently in our power to take advantage of this vacuum to forge a new kind of political and economic future, but this moment is not going to last forever. If President Barack Obama remembers that he rests on the shoulders of giants, he may even become part of the solution.


[1] Joe Klein, "Obama's Victory Ushers in a New America," Time.com, November 5, 2008.

[2] As she notes on her Web site, U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin was "The first openly gay or lesbian person to be elected to the US House who was not already an incumbent." She still lists her affiliation with the Rainbow Coalition on her official site: http://www.nndb.com/people/350/000032254/ .

[3] Adolph Reed, "The Jesse Jackson Phenomenon: The Crisis of Purpose in Afro-American Politics" (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986).

[4] JoAnn Wypijewski, "Rainbow's Gravity," The Nation, July 26, 2004. http://www.alternet.org/story/19332/rainbow's_gravity/?page=entire .

[5] William Wei, "The Asian American Movement" (Temple University Press, 1993), 251-256.

[6] Neela Banerjee, "A Lifetime of Activism," AsianWeek.com, Feb. 23-March 1, 2001.

[7] "The Impact of Jesse Jackson," New York Times, April 15, 1984.

[8] Eddie Wong, "The Man and the Moment," Asian Week: The Voice of Asian America (December 15, 2007), http://www.asianweek.com/2007/12/15/the-man-and-the-moment/ (Accessed November 19, 2008).

[9] Rev. Jesse Jackson Congratulates the Obama/Biden Presidential Victory, November 4, 2008. Rainbow Push Coalition press release.

[10] Juan Williams, "Obama's Postracial Rainbow Coalition," StarTribune.com, November 30, 2007. http://www.startribune.com/opinion/commentary/11983076.html .

[11] For a pictorial summary of our visit, see: "Sunflower County Civil Rights Reunion 2008," at: The Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, http://www.history.ufl.edu/oral/ .

[12] Paul Ortiz, "Emancipation Betrayed: The Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence in Florida from Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920" (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 2005).

[13] Will Jones, "For Jobs and Freedom: The Negro American Labor Council, the 1963 March on Washington, and the Radicalization of Postwar Liberalism," lecture at the UC-Santa Cruz Center for Labor Studies, February 14, 2008.

[14] Manuel Pastor, Robert D. Bullard, James K. Boyce, et. al., "In the Wake of the Storm: Environment, Disaster and Race After Katrina," (Russell Sage Foundation, 2006). John Brown Childs, ed., "Hurricane Katrina: Response and Responsibilities" (Santa Cruz, CA: New Pacific Press, 2007); M. Shahid Alam, "Challenging the New Orientalism: Dissenting Essays on the "War Against Islam" (Islamic Publications International, 2007); David Roediger, "How Race Survived US History: From the American Revolution to the Present" (London: Verso, 2008).

[15] I used CNN.com's exit polling data for this piece. See: http://www.cnn.com/ELECTION/2008/calculator/ .

[16] In These Times, http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/4035/obama_and_the_union_vote/ .

[17] Casey Woods, "Obama Wins Florida's Hispanic Vote," Hispanic Business.com, November 5, 2008.

[18] http://www.miamiherald.com/news/politics/campaign-2008/story/759005.html (Miami Herald, November 6, 2008.

[19] White Extremists Lash Out Over Election of First Black President, Los Angeles Times, November 23, 2008; Racial Backlash Follows Obama's Election, The Gainesville Sun, November 16, 2008; After Obama's Win, White Backlash Festers in US, Christian Science Monitor, November 17, 2008.

[20] Board Keeps Klan Leader's Name at Jacksonville High School, The Gainesville Sun, November 5, 2008.

[21] Local Workers Protest for Rights, The Ledger (Lakeland, FL), April 11, 2006; "Latino Giant" Awakens: Demonstrations Gaining Strength, New York Daily News, March 28, 2006; Immigrants Go Back to Work in South Florida After One-Day Walkouts, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, May 3, 2006.

[22] Obama Gets Major Labor Endorsement, The Los Angeles Times.com, January 16, 2008, http://www.latimes.com/news/politics/la-na-labor16jan16,0,656548 .story; Randy Shaw, César Chávez and the Roots of Obama's Field Campaign, In These Times, November 6, 2008. http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/4024/cesar_chavez_and_the_roots_of_obamas_field_campaign/ .

[23] "Republican Party Platform Reflects Anti-Immigrant Views," posted on: Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, September 2, 1008. http://www.maldef.org/news/press.cfm?ID=470.

[24] David Moberg, Obama and the Union Vote, In These Times, November 10, 2008. http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/4035/obama_and_the_union_vote/ .


Paul Ortiz is an associate professor in history and director of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida.

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