In 2008, Barack Obama made history by becoming the first African American ever elected president of the United States. In a watershed year, his election occurred just 40 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, at the height of the civil rights movement.
While Obama may be unique in his accomplishment, he is not the first African American to seek his country’s highest office. Indeed, another African American ran for president in 2008: former Democratic Rep.was the presidential nominee of the Green Party, capturing 161,603 votes in the general election.
The first African American ever nominated as a candidate for either president or vice president was former slave Frederick Douglass in 1882, when he was named as running mate (without his knowledge or consent) alongside the first woman to seek the presidency, Victoria Woodhull, for the little-known Equal Rights Party. Douglass was not a serious candidate as he did not seek or campaign for the presidential nomination. After Douglass, it would be another 90 years before an African American candidate would actively seek the presidency, this time via a major party.
Since the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, nine African Americans have sought the presidency with varying degrees of seriousness and success. One of reasons for the lack of success for African American candidates prior to 2008 was that their campaigns tended to focus on civil rights and "race."
This trend began with the first of these nine candidates when Shirley Chisolm became the first African American woman to seek the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party. Chisolm’s foray into national politics began in 1968, when she became the first African American woman elected to the US House of Representatives, just a few months after the assassination of King.
The problem with single-issue political campaigns is that candidates tend to be viewed as fringe candidates. It is no ideological coincidence that the almost all of the past African American presidential candidates resided on the left of the political spectrum.
In fact, before Herman Cain rain in the Republican primaries this election cycle, only one African American candidate has ever sought the presidency whilst representing a conservative ideology:campaigned for the Republican Party’s nomination in 1996, 2000 and 2008. However, despite polar opposite political views from the traditional African American candidate, Keyes was still viewed as an extremist, and was never regarded as a legitimate candidate. With the exceptions of in 1984 and 1988, and Obama in 2008, every African American candidate was so extreme in their political views that they were not only considered to be "left,"but "extreme left" (or "right" in the case of Cain and the "extreme right in the case of Keyes).
It is largely for this reason that with the rare exception of Jesse Jackson, particularly in 1988, no African American candidacy was ever taken seriously prior to Obama's. Although Obama’s politics still fall to the left, and despite conservatives’ attempts to portray him as a far-left socialist and to taint him with the apparent stain of past African American candidates, Obama retained enough centrist views to make him viable to the largely centrist voting public.
However, in a year when race became a major issue by virtue of his candidacy, Obama seemed to deliberately steer clear of any discussion of the matter and instead focused on more traditional political policies, such as health care and education. Throughout his entire campaign, from the moment he announced his candidacy to the day he was elected the 44th president, Obama rarely spoke about race and civil rights.
Instead, he adopted a more politically astute means of pushing his civil rights agenda by wrapping his campaign in the supportive arms of prominent African American leaders such as, Jesse Jackson and (wife of Martin Luther King Jr.), who were able to indirectly push the race issue for him.
It is for this reason that Obama’s inauguration speech assumed greater significance when he said: “This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed, why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall. And why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.” Clearly, race was at the forefront of his mind, just not his campaign. It seems Obama was careful to learn from the mistakes of those who had paved his way, and preferred instead to conduct a traditional "white" campaign.
Prior to Obama the most successful African American candidate was Jackson, when he became the first African American male to mount nationwide campaign for the presidency in 1984 and 1988. Although Jackson was a renowned civil rights leader, his campaigns embraced enough of the more traditional "white" politics to see him emerge as a legitimate contender for the Democratic Party’s nomination. Indeed, in 1988 he briefly became the party’s front-runner after winning the Michigan primary.
However, Jackson’s civil rights views and desire for a racially equal America were still ahead of their time, and ultimately became the focus of his campaigns. Thus, despite an innovative start to his campaigns (for an African American) he ultimately succumbed to the traditional African American candidacy and with it, the chance to make history.
Despite his losses, though, Jackson had established himself as a serious and credible candidate, and he had opened the floodgates for African American presidential aspirants. In the four presidential elections held between 1992 and 2004, a total of six African American candidates ran for president.
No doubt the social and media interest generated by the eight previous African Americans presidential candidates helped to facilitate the idea of a black president with the voting public and assisted in making Obama’s ascension possible (along with the none-too-subtle motto with a racial overtone, “It’s time!”).
Popular culture and the media also softened the way for the election of a viable black candidate with numerous portrayals of African American presidents in film and television, most notably in the movie "Deep Impact" (portrayed by Morgan Freeman), and the television series "24" (portrayed by Dennis Haybert). Indeed, by the early years of the millennium it became commonplace for many fictional presidents to be portrayed by African American actors.
The implications of Obama’s victory will undoubtedly include a focus for years to come on the effect it has had on race relations in American society and national politics. It remains to be seen if the approach of his administration will ultimately enable society to look beyond his race as a central issue to his politics, and focus instead on his politics. The very fact that question is asked serves to highlight that despite a black man now occupying the Oval Office, the US still has a way to go before race relations are no longer a political issue. It is not without irony that the true test of Obama’s presidential legacy will be if history can ignore his race and instead judge him on his politics – much like his 2008 campaign.
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