Obama, Clinton, and Carter Represent Different Generations in Racial Struggles

None

President Barack Obama, right, looks on as  former president Bill Clinton, speaks in a building under construction in Washington, Friday, Dec. 2, 2011, part of   President Obama's  Better Building Initiative to promote energy efficient buildings. 
National Journal
George E. Condon Jr.
Aug. 27, 2013, 3:30 p.m.

The bright­est spot­light Wed­nes­day at the rally com­mem­or­at­ing the 50th an­niversary of the his­tor­ic March on Wash­ing­ton will shine on Pres­id­ent Obama. That is as it should be, for noth­ing bet­ter sym­bol­izes the ad­vances of a half-cen­tury than the pres­ence of a twice-elec­ted Afric­an-Amer­ic­an pres­id­ent of the United States. But look just out­side that spot­light at two oth­er pres­id­ents whose stor­ies also dra­mat­ic­ally altered the course of the coun­try’s race re­la­tions and helped make Obama’s tri­umph pos­sible.

Fel­low Demo­crats Jimmy Carter and Bill Clin­ton will speak just be­fore Obama steps to the spot where Mar­tin Luth­er King Jr. gave his most fam­ous ora­tion in 1963. Be­cause of age and birth­place, they bring something to the oc­ca­sion that the much-young­er Obama can­not: per­son­al know­ledge of Jim Crow, per­son­al memor­ies of state-sanc­tioned dis­crim­in­a­tion, and per­son­al ex­per­i­ence in battles to fun­da­ment­ally change the mind­set of the Amer­ic­an South.

Carter, Clin­ton, and Obama, born in 1924, 1946, and 1961, re­spect­ively, roughly rep­res­ent three dis­tinct gen­er­a­tions in the struggle for ra­cial equal­ity. Ku Klux Klan mem­ber­ship hit its mod­ern peak of 6 mil­lion when Carter was a boy. Fed­er­al troops massed in Clin­ton’s home state when he was young, mo­bil­ized by Wash­ing­ton to pro­tect nine frightened kids try­ing to at­tend Little Rock Cent­ral High School. Both grew up in a world of “Colored Only” and “White Only” drink­ing foun­tains. Both lived in states where blacks were blocked from vot­ing by ques­tions no one could an­swer. Both had black play­mates but had to abide by clear re­stric­tions.

“We hunted, fished, ex­plored, worked, and slept to­geth­er,” wrote Carter in Why Not the Best, his 1976 book. “We ground sug­ar cane, plowed with mules, pruned wa­ter­mel­ons, dug and bed­ded sweet pota­toes, mopped cot­ton, stacked pea­nuts, cut stove­wood, pumped wa­ter, fixed fences, fed chick­ens, picked vel­vet beans, and hauled cot­ton to the gin to­geth­er…. We also found time to spend the night on the banks of the Choctawhat­chee and Kin­cha­foon­ee creeks, catch­ing and cook­ing cat­fish and eels…. We ran, swam, rode horses, drove wag­ons, and floated on rafts to­geth­er.”

But, he ad­ded, “We nev­er went to the same church or school. Our so­cial life and our church life were strictly sep­ar­ate.” He re­called listen­ing to the second Joe Louis-Max Schmel­ing prize fight in 1938, watch­ing his fath­er’s dis­may that Louis knocked out his white op­pon­ent in the first round. Black neigh­bors offered no re­ac­tion in front of the eld­er Carter. But when they got in­side a house only 100 yards away, ju­bil­a­tion erup­ted at the tri­umph of the black fight­er.

Both Carter and Clin­ton grew up at ease with Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans. De­Wayne Wick­ham, who wrote the book Bill Clin­ton and Black Amer­ica in 2002, told Na­tion­al Journ­al, “In black churches, there is this rhythm to the mu­sic and ca­dence to the speech. When he showed up there, un­like many white politi­cians, Clin­ton sunk deep in­to his seat while the oth­ers sat on the edge of their seats. He was com­fort­able and hard to move. The oth­ers were ready to get out the door at the first op­por­tun­ity.”

Dur­ing the 1992 cam­paign, Bill Moy­ers asked can­did­ate Clin­ton if there was any is­sue on which he would nev­er com­prom­ise. “Ra­cial justice,” Clin­ton replied. Clin­ton speech­writer Mi­chael Wald­man later wrote, “The one thing every­body knew was that Bill Clin­ton was at his most elo­quent, most per­suas­ive, more mor­ally com­mand­ing when it came to race. He had been shaped, grow­ing up, by the civil-rights struggle around him.”

Of course, Carter and Clin­ton can­not know what it is like to grow up as a black man as Obama does, nor have they ex­per­i­enced the pre­ju­dice in of­fice that has been dir­ec­ted at Obama. But neither man ever for­got the dis­crim­in­a­tion he saw.

In con­trast, Obama grew up in per­haps the most ra­cially tol­er­ant state, com­ing to the main­land long after Jim Crow had been van­quished. “He spent most of his form­at­ive years in Hawaii and a little bit in In­done­sia,” said Wick­ham, a founder of the Na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation of Black Journ­al­ists and now a USA Today colum­nist and journ­al­ism pro­fess­or at Mor­gan State Uni­versity.

When Obama talks about the ra­cism he has en­dured, it is of a dif­fer­ent de­gree than what Carter and Clin­ton ob­served. “There are very few Afric­an-Amer­ic­an men in this coun­try who haven’t had the ex­per­i­ence of be­ing fol­lowed when they were shop­ping in a de­part­ment store. That in­cludes me,” said the pres­id­ent on Ju­ly 19, re­act­ing to the Trayvon Mar­tin ver­dict. “There are very few Afric­an-Amer­ic­an men who haven’t had the ex­per­i­ence of walk­ing across the street and hear­ing the locks click on the doors of cars. That hap­pens to me — at least be­fore I was a sen­at­or. There are very few Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans who haven’t had the ex­per­i­ence of get­ting on an el­ev­at­or and a wo­man clutch­ing her purse nervously and hold­ing her breath un­til she had a chance to get off.”

The per­son­al his­tory re­flects the gen­er­a­tion­al dif­fer­ences. But the links with his older pre­de­cessors are there. Wick­ham sees “a lin­ear con­nec­tion” with the pres­id­ents. Carter and Clin­ton were South­ern­ers who “grew up with an aware­ness of Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans that was fairly unique.” In his book, Wick­ham quoted former At­lanta May­or Bill Camp­bell say­ing, “We know when white folks are com­fort­able around us and when they’re not.” And Carter and Clin­ton are com­fort­able.

Wick­ham noted that Clin­ton, who was fam­ously called “our first black pres­id­ent” in a 1998 es­say by No­bel Prize-win­ning au­thor Toni Mor­ris­on, had mem­or­ized both verses of the Negro na­tion­al an­them “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and un­der­stood its his­tory. As a boy, Clin­ton watched King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and was so moved by it, he mem­or­ized that as well.

Both Carter and Clin­ton had to over­come broad sus­pi­cions as to wheth­er the coun­try was ready for a South­ern gov­ernor. Carter had fol­lowed se­greg­a­tion­ists like Eu­gene Tal­madge and Lester Mad­dox, while Or­val Faubus’s sim­il­ar leg­acy pre­ceded Clin­ton. Carter had drawn na­tion­al no­tice when he used his gubernat­ori­al in­aug­ur­al ad­dress to de­clare, “I say to you quite frankly that the time for ra­cial dis­crim­in­a­tion is over.” But he still needed val­id­a­tion for his ra­cial bona fides be­fore he could be taken ser­i­ously na­tion­ally. That val­id­a­tion came from Mar­tin Luth­er King Sr. and An­drew Young, the former King lieu­ten­ant who was elec­ted to Con­gress, both of whom were strong sup­port­ers of his pres­id­en­tial can­did­acy.

Wed­nes­day, at the Lin­coln Me­mori­al, there is no fur­ther need for out­side val­id­a­tion of any of the three pres­id­ents. His­tory has taken care of that.

What We're Following See More »
‘PULLING A TRUMP’
GOP Budget Chiefs Won’t Invite Administration to Testify
1 days ago
THE DETAILS

The administration will release its 2017 budget blueprint tomorrow, but the House and Senate budget committees won’t be inviting anyone from the White House to come talk about it. “The chairmen of the House and Senate Budget committees released a joint statement saying it simply wasn’t worth their time” to hear from OMB Director Shaun Donovan. Accusing the members of pulling a “Donald Trump,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the move “raises some questions about how confident they are about the kinds of arguments that they could make.”

Source:
A DARK CLOUD OVER TRUMP?
Snowstorm Could Impact Primary Turnout
23 hours ago
THE LATEST

A snowstorm is supposed to hit New Hampshire today and “linger into Primary Tuesday.” GOP consultant Ron Kaufman said lower turnout should help candidates who have spent a lot of time in the state tending to retail politicking. Donald Trump “has acknowledged that he needs to step up his ground-game, and a heavy snowfall could depress his figures relative to more organized candidates.”

Source:
IN CASE OF EMERGENCY
A Shake-Up in the Offing in the Clinton Camp?
18 hours ago
THE DETAILS

Anticipating a primary loss in New Hampshire on Tuesday, Hillary and Bill Clinton “are considering staffing and strategy changes” to their campaign. Sources tell Politico that the Clintons are likely to layer over top officials with experienced talent, rather than fire their staff en masse.

Source:
THE LAST ROUND OF NEW HAMPSHIRE POLLS
Trump Is Still Ahead, but Who’s in Second?
6 hours ago
THE LATEST

We may not be talking about New Hampshire primary polls for another three-and-a-half years, so here goes:

  • American Research Group’s tracking poll has Donald Trump in the lead with 30% support, followed by Marco Rubio and John Kasich tying for second place at 16%. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders leads Hillary Clinton 53%-41%.
  • The 7 News/UMass Lowell tracking poll has Trump way out front with 34%, followed by Rubio and Ted Cruz with 13% apiece. Among the Democrats, Sanders is in front 56%-40%.
  • A Gravis poll puts Trump ahead with 28%, followed by Kasich with 17% and Rubio with 15%.
×