I wrote this for today’s Beyond Chron, San Francisco’s Alternative Online Daily.
At his March 4th speech in Alabama to commemorate the Anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march, Barack Obama confronted the allegation that he is “not black” by connecting his family history to the civil rights movement. Some of what he said in the speech was technically untrue, but Obama was not trying to mislead the audience. While he implied that the 1965 Selma March – which occurred when he was four years old – caused his parents to first meet, Obama later explained that he meant to say “the civil rights movement as a whole.”
But a more puzzling part of the speech was Obama’s assertion that President John F. Kennedy – egged on by the civil rights movement – helped pay for his father’s trip to America through a scholarship. Barack Obama Senior emigrated from Kenya in 1959 and Kennedy was not President until 1961 – but it was JFK the presidential candidate who helped pay for the airfare, as a means of shoring up his credentials in the black community. Now that black voters have rallied behind Obama’s candidacy, the media should put to rest the ridiculous notion that the son of a Kenyan father and a white mother is somehow “not black” enough to become the first black President.
Of all the attacks being hurled against Obama – that his last name sounds like Osama, that his middle name is Hussein, that he went to school in Indonesia, and that he (gasp!) smokes cigarettes – the allegation that he is “not black” is probably the most politically damaging. Obama’s ancestors may not have been brought on slave ships from West Africa in the 1500’s, but his family has suffered the same type of racism that all black people have encountered in their lives.
“My Grandfather was a cook to the British in Kenya,” he said in his March 4th speech. “Grew up in a small village and all his life, that’s all he was – a cook and a house boy. And that’s what they called him, even when he was 60 years old. They called him a house boy. They wouldn’t call him by his last name. Sound familiar?”
Obama then explained that the civil rights movement embarrassed America’s leaders, because the fight against Jim Crow segregation was hurting our image abroad. “So the Kennedy’s decided we’re going to do an air lift,” he said. “We’re going to go to Africa and start bringing young Africans over to this country and give them scholarships to study so they can learn what a wonderful country America is.” One of those men, said Obama, was his father – who came from Kenya on a scholarship and enrolled at the University of Hawaii.
But the Kennedy’s weren’t in the White House at the time – Obama’s father came to America in 1959, two years before Kennedy became President. But the story is true – although it technically happened when Senator John F. Kennedy was still running for President.
In 1958, Tom Mboya, a cabinet minister in Kenya and a prominent trade unionist, launched a program called “Education Overseas” that organized a series of airlifts for Kenyan students who were seeking to get educated in the United States. One of the students who had received a scholarship was Barack Obama’s father.
But according to a 1960 article in Time Magazine, Mboya suddenly found himself stranded. “Education Overseas” needed $100,000 to airlift 250 students from Kenya, but the State Department refused to help because Kenya was a British colony. So Mboya actively lobbied presidential candidates Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy to make it happen. For the same reason that he later got Martin Luther King out of jail, Kennedy helped secure the necessary funding from his father to get the students to America.
It may have been misleading for Obama to say that his parents were brought together by the 1965 Selma March – or slightly inaccurate to say that President Kennedy brought his Dad to America. But he was right. Barack Obama is a product of the civil rights movement, and it should lay to rest the continuing nonsense that he is “not black.”
For reasons that this white author has never completely understood, African-Americans have a strong affinity for Bill Clinton – and there’s no question that it has helped Hillary’s presidential campaign. Eighty percent of blacks have a favorable impression of her, and she kicked off the 2008 nomination as the clear favorite of African-American voters. But now that Obama has launched his campaign and is building high name-recognition, blacks are deserting Clinton in droves and supporting Obama.
In a February 27th poll, 44% of black voters supported Obama – compared with 33% for Hillary Clinton. In contrast, Clinton led Obama among blacks in a December poll by a 40-point margin. As the Washington Post noted, the shift of black voters to Obama has cut Hillary Clinton’s leading margin in half – putting her front-runner status in question.
But what about statements from other African-Americans that Obama is “not black” because he isn’t descended from slaves? On the February 10th edition of the Colbert Report, columnist Debra Dickerson argued this point – but her logic was not convincing. She argued that Obama is “African-African-American,” or, to put it another way, he’s an “adopted brother.”
If the latest Washington Post poll confirms the trend, black people don’t seem to care about such semantics. Hillary Clinton still has much higher name-recognition, but as more black voters get to know Obama, I expect that they will fully embrace him as one of their own.
In recent weeks, reporters have mentioned that Obama’s white ancestors owned slaves – which has further fueled the “Obama-is-not-black” myth. The recent discovery that Al Sharpton’s great-grandfather was owned by a relative of Strom Thurmond has further propelled the media narrative that Obama is not a “black” presidential candidate the way that Sharpton or the Reverend Jesse Jackson were.
But Obama confronted that part of his family history head-on in his March 4th speech. “When my father came over to this country,” he said, “he met this woman whose great great-great-great-grandfather had owned slaves; but she had a good idea there was some craziness going on because they decided that we know that the world as it has been it might not be possible for us to get together and have a child. I’m here because somebody marched. I’m here because you all sacrificed for me. I stand on the shoulders of giants.”
When Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, he said that one day the “sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners” would be able to sit down at the table of brotherhood. Just because Obama’s white ancestors owned slaves doesn’t mean that he isn’t black. What it means is that his mother was willing to marry a black man – despite her own family history.
And that’s what Dr. King’s dream was all about.
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