The Last Lap

Historian Sean Wilentz talks to Jesse Jackson and civil-rights veterans about their awe of—and tensions with—the Obama campaign.

“I’ve been able to see our nation get better,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson muses, in joyful anticipation of Barack Obama’s impending presidential victory. Jackson is reflecting on what he called “sixty years of battles to democratize democracy.” Tuesday’s results, he tells me, will mark a great victory, moving toward “a triumph over the deepest sin in the American soul.” Decades of protest and reform can now give way to a new phase of what he called “bridge building,” with Obama standing squarely at the moral center of the American dream.

There is a note of elegy in Jackson’s remarks, but also pride and determination, all of which would have seemed surprising only a few months ago. Throughout the long primary and general election season, reports have surfaced of deep tensions between the Obama campaign and the veterans of the civil rights movement. Many of the most respected deacons of the African-American community—including Andrew Young, Congressman John Lewis, and Bob Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television—began the presidential year supporting Hillary Rodham Clinton. (Lewis, after citing his Atlanta district’s preferences, switched to Obama before the primaries ended, around the time members of the Obama campaign were reportedly pressuring other black officials to fall into line.) Early in the campaign, Young and Johnson came under attack from Obama’s most ardent supporters—on skimpy evidence—for allegedly making derogatory and even racially-charged remarks about Obama.

In some ways, Jackson says, Obama’s new electoral coalition represents the fulfillment of “my whole idea about the Rainbow Coalition.”

Although Jesse Jackson was always publicly in Obama’s camp, he was also caught on videotape muttering nasty things about the candidate, claiming that Obama was talking down to black people. When Jackson’s son, Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., Obama’s national co-chairman, publicly dressed down his father for his gaffe, it seemed emblematic of the division between the old folks and the youngbloods.

The hard feelings have apparently disappeared, at least for the moment, among the veterans. After talking with a small but politically diverse group of older black activists, one is struck instead by their descriptions of the awe they feel at what is about to happen—an event some of them barely imagined they would live long enough to see. Although they still talk about anxieties and misgivings, these get dwarfed by the grandeur of the moment.

For most African-Americans, Bob Johnson says, Obama’s election is akin to the Second Coming. Johnson seems to be only marginally less expectant himself, telling me that Obama’s ascendancy “could have more significance than the Emancipation Proclamation” if it transforms “the way African-Americans see themselves and the way white Americans see themselves in relation to African-Americans.” Regardless of whom they supported early in the campaign, Johnson and others give Obama credit for making it all happen.

Of course, they observe, Obama was blessed as well as beset by his Republican adversaries. Over the years, Jesse Jackson says, the Republicans have “pushed off” so many large groups of Americans—youth, labor, blacks, women—that they have “pushed themselves into a corner” and made themselves “officially a minority party.” Then came the current administration, with all its disasters culminating in the financial collapse. The activist and great comic entertainer, Dick Gregory—who himself ran for president in 1968 as a write-in candidate on the anti-war Freedom and Peace Party line—credits two people above all for electing Obama to the presidency: the civil rights martyr Jimmie Lee Jackson, whose slaying in 1965 sparked the momentous Selma, Alabama, voting rights marches; and President George W. Bush. (“Bush messed up white folks so bad,” Gregory jokes, “many of them say, ‘god-dang, I’m supposed to vote for a Negro.’”)

Still, Obama has had to walk what Jackson calls “a very thin line” to win the trust of the rest of the electorate, especially in the general election. This is why Jackson now says it is “unfair” to criticize Obama for failing to acknowledge more fully his debts to the civil rights pioneers as he runs what Jackson has called “the last lap of a 54-year marathon race.” Doing so, he contends, might have allowed “the enemies of change” to distract attention from Obama’s agenda, which he takes to be basically liberal/progressive. Obama’s racial background was perfectly obvious. By neither denying nor dwelling on it, Jackson contends, Obama ran a “delicate but smart” campaign.

Yet for all of his vaunted charisma and no matter how much the political press adores him, Obama could not have won over so many non-black voters unless the nation itself had already changed. In some ways, Jackson says, Obama’s new electoral coalition represents the fulfillment of “my whole idea about the Rainbow Coalition.” But now America is ready for that idea—largely, it seems, because of continuing social transformations during what some scholars have mislabeled the post-civil rights era. All along, since 1965, changes were occurring that were greater, Dick Gregory claims, than even the old movement heavies had imagined. “All of them old-time civil rights leaders that knew that it ain’t [time] yet, they hadn’t been in tune with this new piece out here.”

Young whites are a major part of the change. “Most white baby boomers have taught their children that you cannot live in that past that our parents kept us in,” Bob Johnson says. “You’ve got to be open, you’ve got to accept.” Jesse Jackson, returning to his favorite metaphor, agrees: “Once the walls came down, we could see each other and become roommates and work with each other and play ball with each other.” Sports, music, fashion, entertainers—all have done the work of acculturation that, above and beyond obtaining simple justice, was always the goal of racial integration. (Gregory, the entertainer, demurs on this, saying that while comics and satirists helped “change the whole mind set” by saying “’Hold on, the avalanche is coming,’” the movement, and later voters and public officials of good will, did what really counted.)

The country is also far less narrow-minded and knee-jerk today than it was regarding dissent. “When Dr. King said he was against the Vietnam War, he was accused of treason,” Jackson remembers. “Barack says he’s against the Iraq war and people say, ‘You make sense.’” And of course, there is the historical reckoning on race. Bob Johnson senses that many white Americans want somehow, at long last, to exorcise the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow—an atonement, Johnson says, “proving to themselves, intellectually and emotionally: ‘I am not a racist.’” Although Johnson insists that Obama has not run as “the redeeming black candidate,” it is obvious to anyone who has paid attention that his campaign has turned that sense of racial guilt and symbolic redemption to its enormous benefit.

Early in the campaign, some critics doubted whether Obama’s background made him “black” enough to carry the burden of the nation’s racial past. There are also some ironies, both despite and because of his bi-racial heritage, about how Obama has battened on the tempered optimism of integrationist civil rights. Obama’s search for personal identity has had its twists and turns; and he has not described all of them in his two books. In one of those turns, in 1995, he took a time out from his first campaign for the Illinois state legislature in order to attend Louis Farrakhan’s Million Man March in Washington, D.C.—an event Stanley Crouch has written about as “the nadir of black nationalism.” Neither curiosity nor the machinations of South Side Chicago politics can fully explain why Obama was there, any more than they can explain his decades’ long attachment to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

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Still, even if Obama, like the rest of us, is a work in progress, the civil rights veterans seem to see his impending victory as a refutation of the persistent anti-integrationist pessimism about America, whether advocated by the Nation of Islam, the Aryan Nation, or sanctimonious white liberals who have assumed that ordinary white Americans would never truly embrace a black candidate. (As matters stand, Obama is poised to win a greater percentage of the white vote than either John Kerry, Al Gore, or Bill Clinton.)

The veterans caution that hard work still awaits, to insure and then consolidate the breakthrough. After the Emancipation Proclamation, Jackson recalls, “it took us three years to get to the Thirteenth Amendment” which abolished slavery; “then it took us three years to get to Reconstruction—and then that got cancelled.” Revolutions in American life can always go backwards. And Obama, whose political skills far outstrip his experience, still has a long way to go to prove himself as a Chief Executive capable of confronting two wars and a world financial order that is in collapse.

Bob Johnson says he lies awake at night worrying that the “huge euphoria of expectations” will crash and burn if Obama does not prove successful from the get-go. In an odd way, Obama’s being perceived as black will, Johnson says, buy him some time, as any hasty criticism can easily be deflected as racially motivated. But Obama’s supporters can go only so far in ascribing bad faith and hidden bigotry to his adversaries, as they did during the primaries, lest American politics become racialized in the nastiest possible way.

The odds are that something grave will happen sooner rather than later. The financial crisis all but guarantees as much, which raises alarms in Jesse Jackson’s mind: “If Santa comes but the house has been foreclosed, he can’t come down the chimney.” Indeed, there are nagging fears that winning the presidency, in 2008, will turn out to be winning a booby prize. “It’s like the dog that catches the car,” Bob Johnson chuckles mordantly. “I got it, now what am I gonna do with it?” There is little reason, he adds, to believe that Obama and the Congressional leadership are in synch, bearing plans and programs to meet the current emergencies.

Then again, Dick Gregory cracks, as far as the mossbacks are concerned “the worst thing that can happen when Obama wins, he hurries up and solves this financial crisis, and a white boy can’t run for president for another hundred years.” Besides, it is an iron rule of politics than winning is always better than losing; and winning big is always better than winning small. Whatever their abiding misapprehensions, the old lions of civil rights appear to be reveling in the historical deliverance which they now say they see in Barack Obama’s triumph. Listening to Jesse Jackson now, one could easily fall into envisaging these days around November 4 as a world-historic moment, fed by a torrent that has rushed from Selma, Alabama in 1965 to Berlin in 1989, walls falling everywhere, new bridges being made out of the rubble from those walls—a crescendo of hope and change mightier than any campaign slogan, based on the hard history of an entire nation.

Jackson can make his point softly, too: “We learn to survive apart. We learn to live together. More and more, every day.” Or so, at least, it seems right now.