After several attempts by African Americans to run for president, most prominently the “protégé of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Jesse Jackson in the 1980s, the presidency seemed out of reach for non-white people (Levy 235). But after the difficult years of the George W. Bush administration with the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, American voters were ready for a drastic change. In his very effective campaign speeches, Obama won the support of many Americans and the praise of the world community. The famous slogan, “Yes, we can,” inspired and convinced many people at home and abroad. Because of his young age and enthusiastic rhetoric, journalists compared him to President John F. Kennedy, calling him a “black Kennedy” (von Marschall). This political situation was one of the reasons for Barack Obama’s election.
Another, and probably the more important reason for Barack Obama’s election is his connection with the civil rights movement. Robert Kennedy’s prediction quoted above was made in defense of civil rights activities in the South. In his autobiography, Dreams from My Father, Obama repeatedly refers to the influence of civil rights leaders on his life and the importance of “the success of the civil rights movement” for his career (Obama, Dreams 85–87, 278). This movement brought about important changes for African Americans and all other ethnic minorities in the United States. It was part of a general change in the composition of American society. The selection of the African American writer Toni Morrison for the Nobel Prize of literature in 1993 as the first non-white American writer demonstrates the changed perception (Morrison, “Nobel Lecture”). It is not surprising that Toni Morrison publicly recognized this changed situation when she claimed that Bill Clinton—because of his poor descent—was “the first black president” (Morrison, “Nobel Lecture” 31–21).2 In 2008 the country seemed to be ready to acknowledge the new demographic setup and the long-range effects of the civil rights movement by electing Barack Obama.
An important basis of Obama’s political success is his re-evaluation of the achievements of the civil rights activists. A review of some of Obama’s speeches and publications reveals his obligations to the earlier movement for African American emancipation. The first black president of the United States of America can be considered the ultimate realization of civil rights. Like Martin Luther King, Barack Obama promotes a new vision of America, which relies on an adaptation of old ideas to new times. While King’s career found its fulfillment in the position of a clergyman, Obama’s generation could proceed to claiming political offices. Like King, Obama bases his political thought on The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution of the Unites States of America. While King claims the promises of these documents for African Americans, Obama connects them with the cultural work of African Americans like Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Malcolm X whose contributions to American culture he recognizes in Dreams from My Father (85–87). Hence King’s dream of a color blind American society becomes part of the larger context of the American Dream as reinstated in Obama’s 2008 collection of essays, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream.
Barack Obama’s multi-ethnic and interreligious upbringing between Hawai’i, Indonesia, Africa and the continental United States form the basis of his academic and political career. As Glenn Eskew relates in his contribution to this issue, Obama receives his final training in terms of civil rights from Congressman John Lewis, one of whose annual tours to the sites of the civil rights struggle in the South he participates in. This ties in with the new form of heritage tourism to civil rights museums, which have replaced the former veneration of Civil War monuments, as described in Dorit Wagner’s article. The regular observance of historic events belongs to the culture of the New South as well as their reenactments like the march from Selma to Montgomery, in which Obama participated as a presidential candidate. In his speech in Selma he claimed the legacy of the civil rights leaders as giants on whose shoulders he stood and evoked King’s multi-ethnic idea of “the beloved community of God’s children” (Remnick 16–25; 21, 23).
A re-evaluation of the achievements of the civil rights movement shows that Barack Obama’s presidency can be seen as the final triumph of Martin Luther King’s struggle in the 1950s and 1960s. It is no coincidence that Obama’s campaign managers effectively used a T-shirt design in which Martin Luther King figures behind Obama’s portrait (Dietrich 94). What King achieved as a spiritual leader in the mid-twentieth century, Obama fulfilled as a political leader at the beginning of the twenty-first century.3 His political mission is based on the religious spirit of the Black church and on the full reception of all American traditions. In the spirit of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement he acknowledges the transformation of the Old South into the New South, where he managed to change the traditional voting patterns of black and white Southerners decisively, as shown in James Cobb’s analysis. Although some of the rhetorical flourishes of the election campaign and the first year in office have paled in view of the political realities and economic crises, and although some of the national and international acclaim seem premature in retrospect, the award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 is yet another outstanding honor for Obama’s political promises which connects the President with the Peace Prize laureate of 1968, Martin Luther King. Based on his own transcultural biography, he stands for a new multi-ethnic and interreligious America, which also translates into transnational values at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
The articles collected in this thematic issue were given in Atlanta in July 2010 as part of the second stage of a three-year tri-national summer school program for doctoral candidates from Peking University, Johannes Gutenberg University, and Georgia State University. James Cobb analyzes the shift in voting patterns and the transformation of the Solid South from FDR to Barack Obama. Dan Franklin sees in the shift from the former Democratic stronghold in the South, which privileged Southern politicians due to seniority in Washington, to the now red Republican South a loss of political impetus and national importance. Glenn Eskew sketches U.S. representative John Lewis’ career from his civil rights engagement to political offices in Atlanta and Washington to link the achievements of the movement to Barack Obama’s success. The presence of Obama paraphernalia in the gift shops of civil rights museums demonstrates this linkage as Dorit Wagner’s tour in the South amply documents. More critically, Elizabeth J. West questions the African American foundation of Obama’s politics which for her are based on white (slave owning) Founding Fathers rather than the African American legacy of slavery. The contributions by Pearl McHaney and Brennan Collins focus on eminent representatives of Southern literature. McHaney compares several stories about the civil rights movement and affirms Welty’s anti-racist stand. Collins looks at the neglected work of a regionally based Georgian writer, Raymond Williams, whose predilection for oral tales and technique he compares to those of Zora Neale Hurston. The issue concludes with John A. Burrison’s long-standing research on cultural materialism which allows him to show the interracial and transcultural connections of pottery, ranging from South Carolina’s Edgefield District to England, Germany, and Africa.
Oliver Scheiding, Zhao Baisheng and I would like to thank all contributors for their participation in the summer school which proved to be a valuable exercise in transcultural education. We owe special thanks to the local organizers Reiner Smolinski and Glenn Eskew, who proved to be excellent hosts in Atlanta and shared with us their expertise also on field trips to the civil rights sites in Georgia and Alabama. Last but not least, we would like to express our gratitude to the DAAD, Johannes Gutenberg University and Georgia State University which financed and sponsored this tri-national summer school.
Carcasson, Martín and Mitchell Rice. “The Promise and Failure of President Clinton’s Race Initiative of 1997–1998.” Civil Rights Rhetoric and the American Presidency. Eds. James Arnt Aune and Enrique D. Rigsby. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2005. 301–38.
Carson, Clayborne, ed. Civil Rights Chronicle: The African-American Struggle for Freedom. Lincolnwood, IL: Legacy Publishing, 2003.
Dietrich, Tobias. Martin Luther King. Paderborn: Fink Verlag, 2008.
Levy, Peter B., ed. Let Freedom Ring: A Documentary History of the Modern Civil Rights Movement. New York: Praeger, 1992.
Loftus, Joseph A. “U.S. Tells World of Rights Strife.” New York Times 27 May 1961. 15 Aug. 2011 <http://www.snopes.com/politics/obama/kennedy.asp>.
Marschall, Christoph von. Barack Obama: Der schwarze Kennedy. Zürich: Orell Füssli Verlag, 2007.
Morrison, Toni. “Clinton as the First Black President.” New Yorker 5 Oct. 1998: 31–32.
Morrison, Toni. “Nobel Lecture.” Rec. 7 December 1993. Nobel Prize in Literature Lecture 1993. 31 Aug. 2011 <http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1993/morrison-lecture.html>.
Obama, Barack. Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. 1995; New York: Three Rivers Press, 2004.
Obama, Barack. The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream. 2006; New York: Vintage Books, 2008.
Remnick, David. The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama. London: Picador, 2010.
Wagner, Dorit. “Civil Rights Tourism.” MA thesis. University of Mainz.
2 For President Clinton’s special concern for African Americans see also Clayborne Carson, ed., Civil Rights Chronicle: The African-American Struggle for Freedom (Lincolnwood, IL: Legacy Publishing, 2003), 420–21. Cf. also Martín Carcasson and Mitchell Rice, “The Promise and Failure of President Clinton’s Race Initiative of 1997–1998,” Civil Rights Rhetoric and the American Presidency, ed. James Arnt Aune and Enrique D. Rigsby (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2005), 301–38.
3 President Obama repeated the importance of the most prominent civil rights leader for his own career on the occasion of the inauguration of the Martin Luther King Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C., on 16 October 2011 in the presence of King’s allies like Jesse Jackson and John Lewis.
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