Why Barack owes a debt to past wars for freedom
Published on May 12, 2008, 12:00 am
By Dominic Odipo
As I watched Senator Barack Obama give his nearly flawless victory speech last week in North Carolina, I marvelled, once more, at the twin powers of history and the media.
Here I was watching a black man giving this historic speech in full colour to the whole world courtesy of an American television channel for which I was paying nothing.
Here was Obama, an American presidential candidate, and the media, making history right before my eyes. But as the pictures kept flashing across the CNN channel, my mind drifted a little further. It occurred to me that, whether or not Obama ultimately wins the race for the White House, he has already succeeded.
He has already proved that a black man can make a serious and credible run for the American presidency. He has opened the minds of millions of the downtrodden not only in the United States, but around the world.
To paraphrase Dr Martin Luther King, the late American civil rights leader, he has demonstrated that, even if he does not himself reach the promised land, we as a people will one day get there.
As the mind rolled on, the inevitable questions began to form: How could this have happened? How could Obama be giving this triumphant speech in a city where his grandfather could summarily have been lynched merely for admiring a beautiful white woman? How was it that candidate Obama was speaking about taking the presidency in the world’s most powerful country, whose most powerful diplomat is a black woman?
The answers to these questions coalesce around two white men, both former American presidents; Lyndon Johnson and Abraham Lincoln.
On March 15, 1965, Johnson made a historic speech to a joint session of the American Congress. Reacting to demonstrations in support of voting rights for black people which had been going on in Selma, Alabama, the President said: “At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama.”
Declaring that he would push for a new and stronger civil rights bill, Johnson said: “This time, on this issue, there must be no delay, no hesitation and no compromise.
“Even if we pass this Bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negros to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life.”
And then the President dropped the bombshell: “This cause must be our cause, too. Because it is not just Negros, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”
In his best-selling biography, Means of Ascent: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Robert Caro writes: “There was a moment of silence, as if it took a moment for the audience to realise that the President had adopted the rallying cry of black protests as his own. Then applause rolled across the chamber.
“And there were other more eloquent testimonies to the power of that speech. In a living room in Selma, Alabama, Martin Luther King Jr, and several of his aides were watching the speech on television. None of his aides had ever seen Dr King cry. When Johnson said, ‘We shall overcome’, they looked at their leader to see his reaction. So they were looking when King began to cry.”
Now enter Abraham Lincoln, the man who elected president in 1860. It was Lincoln who led the northern free states into civil war against the southern slave states fortified by the belief that the US could not endure half slave and half free.
It was Lincoln who signed the Emancipation Proclamation, formally and legally freeing all slaves held in the US. But Lincoln did not give those freed slaves the vote.
Here is how Caro captures the axis between Lincoln and Johnson:
“Abraham Lincoln struck off the chains of black Americans, but it was Lyndon Johnson who led them into voting booths, closed democracy’s sacred curtain behind them, placed their hands upon the lever that gave them a hold on their own destiny, made them, at last and forever, a true part of American political life.”
Without Lincoln and Johnson, the world might probably never have heard of Barack Obama.
The writer is a lecturer and consultant in Nairobi