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.
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 »
TAKATA RECALLS COULD TAKE YEARS TO COMPLETE
Airbag Recalls Target 12 Million Automobiles
15 minutes ago
THE LATEST

"The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration identified on Friday the makes and models of 12 million cars and motorcycles that have been recalled because of defective air bag inflators made by Japanese supplier Takata. The action includes 4.3 million Chryslers; 4.5 million Hondas; 1.6 million Toyotas; 731,000 Mazdas; 402,000 Nissans; 383,000 Subarus; 38,000 Mitsubishis; and 2,800 Ferraris. ... Analysts have said it could take years for all of the air bags to be replaced. Some have questioned whether Takata can survive the latest blow."

Source:
INVESTIGATION LEADS TO LEAKER’S RESIGNATION
Secret Service Disciplines 41 Agents Over Chaffetz Leak
46 minutes ago
THE LATEST

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson says 41 Secret Service agents have been disciplined in the fallout of an investigation over the agency's leak of personnel files. The leaker, who has resigned, released records showing that Oversight and Government Reform Chair Jason Chaffetz—who was leading an investigation of Secret Service security lapses—had applied for a job at the agency years before. The punishments include reprimands and suspension without pay. "Like many others I was appalled by the episode reflected in the Inspector General’s report, which brought real discredit to the Secret Service," said Johnson.

Source:
#NEVERTRUMP’S LONELY LEADER
Romney Talks Cost of His Futile Anti-Trump Fight
2 hours ago
THE LATEST

Mitt Romney spoke in an interview with the Wall Street Journal about his decision to challenge Donald Trump. “Friends warned me, ‘Don’t speak out, stay out of the fray,’ because criticizing Mr. Trump will only help him by giving him someone else to attack. They were right. I became his next target, and the incoming attacks have been constant and brutal.” Still, "I wanted my grandkids to see that I simply couldn’t ignore what Mr. Trump was saying and doing, which revealed a character and temperament unfit for the leader of the free world.”

Source:
CONGRESS DIVIDED ON DEBT CRISIS PLAN
Puerto Rico Relief Stalled on the Hill
3 hours ago
THE LATEST

"A bill to help Puerto Rico handle its $70 billion debt crisis is facing an uncertain future in the Senate. No Senate Democrats have endorsed a bill backed by House Speaker Paul Ryan and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, while some are actively fighting it. ... On the Republican side, senators say they’re hopeful to pass a bill but don’t know if they can support the current legislation — which is expected to win House approval given its backing from leaders in that chamber."

Source:
LAWMAKERS RECESS WITH NO PLAN IMMINENT
Congress Slow-walking Zika Legislation
3 hours ago
THE LATEST

"Congress abandoned the Capitol Thursday for an almost two-week break without addressing how to combat Zika, even as public health officials issue dire warnings about the spread of the mosquito-driven virus with summer approaching. ... Instead of racing to fund efforts to thwart a potential health crisis, lawmakers are treating the Zika debate like regular legislation, approving Thursday the establishment of a House-Senate committee to hammer out differences in their competing bills."

Source:
×