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

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.
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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.

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