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Our Historical Legacy

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
August 29, 2008

Barack Obama
Barack Obama
Last night Barack Obama made history when he became the first African-American to be nominated to lead the Democratic Party for the presidency of the United States of America. On November 4, he will create history yet again by becoming the first black President of the United States.

In an ironic twist of history, Obama delivered his acceptance speech forty five years to the very day after Martin Luther King delivered his now-famous "I Have a Dream" speech to hundreds of thousands of people on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. For those of us who have been studying and participating in American politics, Obama's achievement is truly a dream come true. "We," as Michael Powell suggests, "are the living connective tissue to the America of 1963."

Obama's nomination generated the same electricity I felt Sunday morning, February 11, 1990, when Nelson Mandela walked out of Robben Island to the world's acclaim. In 1975, when I drove Cosmo Pieterse, an exiled South African poet with whom I taught at Ohio University from Athens, Ohio to Dayton, we had faint hopes we would live to see South Africa free. When I got to Harvard University in 1975, I was one of the few faculty members to call for Harvard's divestment from apartheid South Africa. On April 27, 1994, Mandela was elected South Africa's first black president.

The 1960s was a rough years for those who followed and/or participated in the civil rights cause of African Americans. Obama was a child then, having been born on August 4, 1961. No one every told him that it would be his burden to carry African-Americans to a new stage in their freedom struggle and to propel the United States to a higher stage of her political destiny: the perfecting of the union.

From 1789 to 1877 twelve US presidents owned slaves; eight owned them while serving as presidents. Up until 1865, blacks were responsible for electing each president as Garry Wills make clear in Negro President: Jefferson and the Slave Power. Although John Adams received more votes than Thomas Jefferson in the presidential election of 1800, Jefferson ended up as the president because of the Three fifths Clause (a bargain that had be struck at the Constitutional Convention) that proclaimed each slave person would count as three-fifths of a person for establishing the representation of a state in the House of Representatives and consequently in the Electoral College. Long before Bill Clinton was proclaimed the first black president, Timothy Pickering, secretary of State under President George Washington, described Jefferson as the "Negro President" and Senator Plumer of New Jersey wrote that "the Negro votes made Mr. Jefferson president."

Alexander Hamilton, a West Indian and Founding Father of the USA, also paved the way for Obama's ascendcy. He was responsible for the creation of the federal system and, "laid the groundwork for both liberal democracy and capitalism and helped to transform the role of president from passive administrator to active policy maker, creating the institutional scaffolding for America's future emergence as a great power."

In spite of his monumental achievements, Clinton was denied the chance to become the president of the US because of foreign birth, his racial identity (he was believed to be the offspring of white person and a quadroon), his illegitimacy and his connection to the British Crown. Ron Chernow notes that if Washington was the father of the country and Madison the father of the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton "was surely the father of the American government."

In 1965 only 27 percent of blacks in Georgia; 19 percent in Alabama and 6 per cent Mississippi were registered to vote. In Selma, Alabama, black consisted of half the population but only 2 percent was registered voters. Prior to, every stratagem was used to keep them from registering to vote. The March on Selma was organized to stop the intimidation of black voters. When police tear-gassed the marchers televised scenes of violence, on a day that came to be known as "Bloody Sunday," over 20,000 persons went to Selma eventually to protest one of the worst aspects of American democracy.

Lyndon Baines Johnson, the president of the day, could not let such outrage continue to sully the name of US democracy. His address to Congress paved the way the way for the Voting Rights Act of that same year. He noted to Congress: "Their cause must be our cause, too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice."

After a short pause, President Johnson intoned "And we shall overcome." He had taken the words of Dr. King to frame his appeal to his nation.

And so it is that as we celebrate Obama's triumph let us remember that his is a culmination of work that begun as soon as the nation begun: the tenacity of the enslaved, the work of Hamilton; the audacity of MLK; and the heroism of black men and women throughout the country who fought to see this day come true.

May we all live to see the glorious day.

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