Ghosts of civil rights past

By | August 30, 2008

Sonya Ross (AP)

– Back when Barack Obama was all of 3 years old, Fannie Lou Hamer tried to elbow her way into the 1964 Democratic National Convention.

The credentialing committee refused to seat anyone from Hamer’s alternative delegation along with Mississippi’s all-white contingent. Yet the question posed in defeat then by Hamer, a poor, black sharecropper, rings with ironic triumph now, courtesy of that 3-year-old:

“Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave?”

Obama himself may downplay them, but the cast of civil-rights luminaries who did not live to witness this history he’s making are in it with him nonetheless. They float quietly above the campaign trail like an invisible counsel of elders, their observations lighting the way toward the greater history Obama could make if he wins the White House.

Obama’s reluctance to make a grand production of his new, first-black-ever status doesn’t faze the elders. They wouldn’t want him to wallow in the magnitude of it anyway.

“Sometimes, history takes things into its own hands,” Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice, once noted. However, Marshall also considered it mandatory that those who benefit from history’s timing never believe the hype: “None of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. We got here because somebody – a parent, a teacher, an Ivy League crony or a few nuns – bent down and helped us pick up our boots.”

More obviously, it is Martin Luther King Jr., the “young preacher from Georgia” Obama credited with foreshadowing his conquest exactly 45 years before it happened, who offers the Democratic nominee the wisdom he needs to comprehend his pedestrian poll numbers against Republican John McCain.

“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will,” King wrote in his 1963 “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” “Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

Speaking of outright rejection, who better than Lester Maddox, segregationist governor of Georgia, to help Obama steel himself against salty, stubborn thorns in his side?

“Challenges strengthen you, build you. When you dig out of a ditch on your own, you know what it is when you get to the peak,” said Maddox, who ran for president in 1976 as an independent and never recanted his views, unlike his fellow segregationist, Alabama Gov. George Wallace.

Paralyzed in an assassination attempt while campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972, Wallace reminds Obama that even the staunchest of enemies might one day yearn for redemption: “I don’t expect people to forget my harsh words or deeds,” Wallace told an interviewer in the late 1980s. “But I ask that they try to remember the actions that I took that were designed to help them.”

Whenever he needs to soothe voters’ concerns about his identity and intentions, Obama might want to step back and let W.E.B. DuBois, founder of the NAACP, spell it out for him:


“He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa,” DuBois wrote in his seminal 1903 work, “The Souls of Black Folk.”

“He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of opportunity closed roughly in his face.”

Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress, is also there in a no-nonsense way, urging Obama to put some meat on those campaign promises of his.

“Rhetoric never won a revolution yet,” said Chisholm, who also ran for president, in 1972, and got 151 votes from Democratic delegates in Miami that year.

“I ran for the presidency, despite hopeless odds, to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo,” Chisholm wrote in a 1973 book, “The Good Fight.” “The next time a woman runs, or a black, or a Jew or anyone from a group that the country is ‘not ready’ to elect to its highest office, I believe that he or she will be taken seriously from the start. … In this country, everybody is supposed to be able to run for president, but that has never really been true.”

From Frederick Douglass, escaped slave-turned-abolitionist, who got one vote for president at the 1888 Republican National Convention, Obama can get sheer encouragement – “What is possible for me is possible for you” – and an admonition never to lose political will when it comes to the concerns of the races.

“The United States government made the Negro a citizen, will it protect him as a citizen? This is the problem,” Douglass said in an 1890 speech to a Washington, D.C., historical society. “It made him a soldier, will it honor him as a patriot? This is the problem. It made him a voter, will it defend his right to vote? This, I say, is more a problem for the nation than the Negro, and this is the side of the question far more than the other which should be kept in view by the American people.”

If all else fails, Obama can always fall back on the simple eloquence of Hamer. After all, she did live out what Obama likes to call “the fierce urgency of now.” Bolstered by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, Hamer unsuccessfully challenged a white, 12-term incumbent for a Mississippi congressional seat in 1964 partly because she was fed up with begging for chances.

“All my life, I’ve been sick and tired,” Hamer said. “Now I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

Her party may have been left out in 1964, but it did have seated delegates four years later – a victory Hamer lived to see.