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Historians write 1st draft on Obama victory

Historians react to the election of Barack Obama.'s Bill Dedman reports.
Image: Barack Obama, Joe Biden
President-elect Barack Obama,  and Vice President-elect Joe Biden celebrate after Obama's acceptance speech at the Election Night rally in Chicago.Jae C. Hong / AP file
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It's historic, certainly, but what does it mean? asked American historians who have focused on civil rights issues to react to the victory of Sen. Barack Obama.

Below are their essays, a first draft of history.

Readers are invited to add your comments on our Witnessing History blog.

James Grossman, Newberry Library, Chicago

Last night hundreds of thousands of Americans gathered in the streets of our cities to celebrate a moment that is self-consciously "historic." However much Barack Obama refused to be defined by race; however often he reminded us of the white grandparents who raised him; however wittily he joked that the "Bradley effect" would paralyze him in the voting booth: countless sentences spilled across the media referring to "history being made" or the "milestone in our nation’s history." The narrative of progress, the satisfaction of having bridged the nation’s historic divide is irresistible. 

It also is overstated and somewhat misleading.  It is impossible to understate the symbolic significance of a nation with our past choosing an African-American to our highest position of leadership. The message to black children is unmistakable. The message to white children is different, but equally unmistakable. To one we are saying: "yes you can."  To the other, we are saying "yes they can." 

But this is not the end of history. As we congratulate ourselves for overcoming four centuries of racial oppression, we need to recognize the extent to which Barack Obama also stands outside of that history. Barack Obama stands tall as a symbol of black achievement but he does so as a man with no roots in those aspects of the black American experience that have poisoned American race relations. He has no roots in American slavery, the era of Jim Crow, or urban ghettos.  Is it possible that the only African-American who could cross the fragile bridge across the racial divide was a man unassociated with the great crucibles of African-American life?

The lesson, perhaps, lies somewhere else. It lies in Sarah Palin’s invocation of a "real America" somewhere in the small towns and cities across the nation, with their mythical Joes sporting American flags and toting rifles. The real America was in the streets last night. Hundreds of thousands of them in Los Angeles, in front of the White House, in Chicago’s Grant Park. I saw some of them on the bus as I rode home from work: "ordinary" people, dressed in less than fashionable clothes, heading downtown to share in the "historic" moment. Black and white; immigrant and native born; young and old; poor, working-class, and affluent. All were in Grant Park, collegially sharing the moment and responding to the leadership of a social movement that seeks to redefine our civic culture. Barack Obama is not only a black man. He is the son of an immigrant. The son of a single mother. A real American.

is the author of "Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration," and the coeditor of "The Encyclopedia of Chicago." He is vice president for research and education at the Newberry Library in Chicago.


Robert O. Self, Brown University

The United States is a young country. Too young, perhaps. We do not always appreciate what the French call the longue duree — the long term of history. But that is the best vantage from which to view Barack Obama’s victory in the 2008 presidential campaign. Has racism vanished? No. White privilege? No.

But is there a thread of history connecting Obama with Denmark Vesey, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, W. E. B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, Pauli Murray, Malcolm X, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King, Jr., Fanny Lou Hamer, Stokely Carmichael, John Lewis, Shirley Chisholm, Marion Wright Edelman, and a long list of others? Yes. Without a doubt.

African-American history has defined the longue duree in the United States. Slavery could not be ended in 200 years, much less in a single generation. Jim Crow took nearly a hundred years to eradicate. Civil rights and full equality, after three generations of tireless work, are an ongoing work-in-progress. The persistence of the black "freedom struggle," dating to the 1620s, is one of the defining elements of the history of this nation.

Is Obama’s victory a chapter in that history? Yes and no. Our oldest, deepest, most persistent myth, that of race, can also be our most superficial. Too much ink has been spilled in declaring Obama a "post-racial" candidate. What? How can the son of an African immigrant, in the land that stole nearly three centuries of labor from Africa in the name of white racial supremacy, be post-racial? He can’t.

And that is the beautiful irony of race in America. It is fixed and fluid at the same time. Obama both embodies and transcend his, and our, "race." As the inheritor of a political tradition that stretches from Vesey to King, from Susan B. Anthony to Franklin Roosevelt, Obama is the liberal citizen triumphant, the citizen who exists beyond color and speaks to our common destiny. But he is also the prodigal black son, the inheritor of the injuries of racial chauvinism who rises despite the burden.

What is most important about Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2008, is that for the first time in the nation’s history, to get us out of a jam we turned to, and trusted, a black man. And, frankly, who better? For who has worked harder for, invested more in, and believed more passionately in this nation than its black citizens? None. Perhaps it high time that, collectively as a nation, we came to realize that.

teaches and writes on 20th century U.S. history. His principal research interests are in urban history, the history of race and American political culture, post-1945 U.S. society and culture, and gender in the mid-century city. His first book, "American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland," was published by Princeton University Press in 2003. He is at work on a book about gender, sexuality, and political culture in the U.S. from 1965 to 1980.


Peniel E. Joseph, Brandeis University

Sen. Barack Obama’s historic election as the nation’s first black president is a watershed historical event that will impact African-Americans in at least three significant ways. First, it transforms the very aesthetic of the nation’s democracy. This transformation goes beyond symbolism. Like a surrealist painter, Obama has successfully willed a world that could once only be imagined into being. The iconography of the Obama administration over the next four years will reverberate throughout all levels of the black community, instilling a sense of pride and optimism while inspiring a new generation about their own ability to achieve their share of the American dream.

Second, an Obama presidency forces contemporary black activists to maintain a new level of vigilance. As America’s first black president Obama will be under tremendous pressure to not show any kind of racial favoritism in public policy. Twenty-first century era civil rights activists must apply equally measures of pressure to ensure that struggles for racial and economic justice no longer remain on the fringes of the country’s national political debate.

Finally, the ultimate impact of Obama’s presidency on the black community will be measured by public policy. With national fatigue over Affirmative Action, Obama’s willingness to propose bold and universal programs to promote jobs, good schools, affordable healthcare and safe neighborhoods will have the most concrete and beneficial effect on black America.

If Obama’s election illustrates the tremendous strides in racial progress made in America since the 1960s, high rates of black poverty, unemployment and incarceration attest to the long journey that lies ahead. Ultimately, the most immediate effects of the nation’s first black president on African-Americans may be in allowing a new generation of young people to realize their enormous potential by imagining a world where their dreams actually can come true and the possibilities for advancement are unlimited.

teaches at Brandeis University and is the author of the award winning "Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America."

Vicki L. Ruiz, University of California-Irvine

The plot seemed right out of a 1940s Hollywood movie — pretty Rosie the Riveter meets dashing co-worker; he goes off to fight for their country and upon his return, they fall in love and decide to marry. Credits roll. However, this 1948 landmark California State Supreme Court case brought into stark relief the centrality of race in this real life scenario. Andrea Pérez was the daughter of Mexican immigrants; her fiancé Sylvester Davis was African-American. Fully aware that California’s anti-miscegenation code prohibited their marriage, they hired an attorney to challenge this discriminatory law. Indeed, after a Los Angeles County clerk denied the couple a marriage license, Andrea Pérez filed suit.

The California Supreme Court in the 1948 case Pérez v. Sharp ruled the state anti-miscegenation law unconstitutional, an unprecedented move by a state judicial body. In the words of Justice Roger Traynor: "We are dealing here with legislation which involves one of the most basic rights of man. ... Marriage and procreation are fundamental. ... Legislation infringing upon such rights must be based on more than prejudice and must be free from oppressive discrimination to comply with the constitutional requirements of due process and equal protection of the law.’"

Earl Warren served as governor of California at the time the court handed down its historic decision. In 1967, he would preside as chief justice in Loving v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court case that struck down all remaining state anti-miscegenation laws. This now forgotten case stood as a sentinel for a larger civil rights movement to come. Sixty years after Pérez v. Sharp, a child borne of an interracial marriage, Barack Obama, will become the next President of the United States.

is Dean of the School of Humanities and Professor of History and Chicano/Latino Studies at the University of California, Irvine. Past president of the Organization of American Historians, she is the author of "From Out of the Shadows: Mexican Women in Twentieth-Century America" and the editor of "Latinas in the United States: A Historical Encyclopedia," with Virginia Sánchez-Korrol.


Renee Romano, Oberlin College

Last night, Barack Obama made history, becoming the first African-American to ever be elected president. Obama’s successful bid for the White House signals change on so many fronts — it demonstrates the enormous strides African-Americans have made since the 1960s and the transformation of the American political landscape as the baton is passed to a new generation of Americans who grew up in the post-civil rights movement era.

But of all the historic moments that were part of Barack Obama’s candidacy for president, none stuck me more forcefully than Obama’s white relatives sitting in support of him at the Democratic Convention. Obama identifies himself proudly as an African-American, but throughout the campaign, he publicly embraced his white extended family, repeatedly praising his mother and grandmother, and speaking with pride of his white uncle, a World War II veteran.

With so many milestones in Obama’s run for the presidency, the fact that Obama is the son of a black father and a white mother who speaks with obvious affection for his multiracial family has sometimes been lost in the mix. But Obama’s comfort in his own skin, his embrace of his complex racial identity, and the apparent willingness of the American people to accept him as he is represents a milestone in America’s history.

While relationships across color lines and multiracial families have existed throughout America’s past, such relationships and families were largely hidden from public view, considered shameful, degraded, and even disgusting. In 1961, the year Barack Obama was born, close to 30 states still had laws barring marriages between people of different races, the vast majority of whites (close to 100 percent in Gallup Polls) disapproved of black-white marriages, and those who dared to cross the color line were considered racial degenerates. Sociology textbooks warned that children of mixed marriages would be maladjusted and would face harsh societal discrimination from both blacks and whites.

Barack Obama’s success, his loving extended family, and his easy handling of his racial identity, shows how much things have changed since he was born. In the last 40 years, the black freedom struggle, increased immigration from non-European countries and changing racial attitudes have opened new avenues for Americans of all races to interact on a plane of relative equality.

While Barack Obama’s victory does not mean racism has disappeared or that the racial categories and identity no longer matter, it does signal a new maturity in America’s racial history, as the country comes to tolerate, and perhaps even accept, itself as a cosmopolitan, racially complicated place.

is associate professor of History at Oberlin College in Ohio. She is the author of "Race Mixing: Black-White Marriage in Postwar America" (Harvard University Press, 2003) and co-editor of "The Civil Rights Movement in American Memory" (University of Georgia Press, 2006). She is at work on a new book, tentatively entitled, "Justice Delayed: Civil Rights Trials and America's Racial Reckoning."


Michael Honey, University of Washington

At this summer’s Republican Convention, Sarah Palin mocked Barack Obama, and Rudy Guliana exclaimed, “Community organizer: What!!?”

They didn’t get it then, but maybe the Republicans get it now. We have seen a beautiful model of organizing by the Obama campaign.

As an organizer in the downtrodden, gang-infested streets of the Black and Latino communities of South Side Chicago in the 1980s, Obama saw plant closings and disinvestment destroy lives and communities.

Back then, he couldn’t explain exactly what organizing meant. Instead, “I’d pronounce on the need for change… Change won’t come from the top, I would say. Change will come from a mobilized grass roots.” (Dreams From My Father, 133)

Obama went on to law and politics to find greater leverage. He also tapped into Martin Luther King’s politics of hope. That combination has opened up the country to the possibility of new politics, and new goals.

So today, as King asked in 1968, “where do we go from here?” King sought big goals: redistribution of wealth and power, an end to racism and war, a “moral revolution.” He wrote, “we must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society.”

Obama doesn’t promise to take us that far. He is a reformer, not a radical. But like King, he envisions a program to deal with racial inequality by reaching beyond race to address problems facing all working people.

With our economy and government practically in ruins, Democrats will be hard pressed to address our economic disaster. We did it under worse times in the 1930s, and we can do it again today. Some of us will be pressing for a new law restoring the right of workers, without fear of firing, to organize unions, which remain the best “anti-poverty program,” according to King.

Obama’s campaign has shown that ordinary people can do extraordinary things when working together. His election victory affirmed the power of organizing. Now it’s time for phase two, for churches, unions, community and other organizations to demand action from government.

In my hometown of Tacoma, Washington, I witnessed the unique vibrancy of the Obama campaign. I have never seen more involved, energized people, working so hard in an election campaign. It was true virtually everywhere.

The movement that elected Obama now needs to push on to implement change, to make real the promise of hope that was restored in this election.

Let’s hope 2008 marks the beginning of saving democracy. That won’t happen without mass involvement. As King would tell us, we still need to organize.

is the Fred and Dorothy Haley professor of humanities at the University of Washington, Tacoma, and Harry Bridges chair of labor studies emeritus at the University of Washington. He is national president of the Labor and Working-Class History Association, which includes more than 500 labor historians. He has published three award-winning books, including "Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King's Last Campaign" (WW Norton, 2007).