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With the Democratic primaries in full swing, Barack Obama, in his bid for the U.S presidency, joins a short list of prominent African-American contenders (Shirley Chisholm, Jesse Jackson, Alan Keyes, Carol Moseley Braun and Al Sharpton) — all of whom, in the prism of time, had their hopes dashed by the realities of American politics.
While the viability of a black presidential candidate is up for debate, Barack Obama, unlike his forbears, has the most likely chance of winning the Democratic nomination and, consequently, has a real bid for the U.S. presidency. Of the former Democratic contenders, Chisholm, Jackson, Moseley Braun, and Sharpton, each mistakenly placed — at least for mainstream support — race (or gender or class, in the context of race) at the center of their platform. And each, with the reality of their status setting in, eventually conceded, with words or deeds, that their bids were largely to bring African-American issues to the national media's attention rather than to win mainstream support.
In 1968, Shirley Chisholm became the first African-American woman elected to the U.S. Congress. Four years later, Chisholm became the first African-American woman to run for President of the United States. As a Brooklyn native, Chisholm sought to improve the social and economic opportunities of inner-city residents, and was also a fervent advocate of social, educational, and health-related programs. Given the time of her candidacy, Chisholm was well aware of the limitations that society and American politics had in place for a woman — especially a black woman. Chisholm, nevertheless, noted that, "in spite of hopeless odds," she needed "to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo."
In 1972, Chisholm won 151 delegates at the Democratic National Convention.
Jesse Jackson was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988. Jackson, an ardent supporter of Martin Luther King, Jr., was the national director of Operation Breadbasket, an organization supported by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) that sought to improve the economic conditions of black communities. He would later go on to found PUSH (People United to Serve Humanity) in 1971 and the Rainbow Coalition in 1984. Both organizations would merge in 1996, under the moniker Rainbow/PUSH. As the head of Rainbow/PUSH, Jesse Jackson would gain national prominence and widespread support. The organization garnered its fair share of critics as well, for Jackson's vocal charges of racism and organization of public protests.
In 1984, Jackson won five primaries and caucuses (the District of Columbia, Louisiana, South Carolina, Virginia and one of two held in Mississippi). In 1988, Jackson's political fortunes doubled, as he won eleven primaries and caucuses (Alabama, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Vermont and Virginia).
In 2004, twenty years after Jesse Jackson's initial bid, two African-Americans emerged as Democratic presidential nominees: Al Sharpton, founder of the National Action Network (NAN), and Carol Moseley Braun, who was the first woman elected to the Senate from Illinois, the first African-American woman elected to the Senate, and the first African-American (within the Democratic Party) elected to the Senate. The backgrounds of Sharpton, as a civil rights activist, and Moseley Braun, as a former Assistant United States Attorney, led them to champion causes surrounding civil rights, education, and government reform. Both of their campaigns were short-lived, however. Moseley Braun dropped out of the nomination race four days before the Iowa caucuses, on January 15, 2004. Two months later, on March 15, 2004, Al Sharpton announced his endorsement of leading Democratic candidate John Kerry.
As Sharpton and Moseley Braun faded from the political spotlight in 2004, the year also saw the emergence of Barack Obama, an Illinois state legislator. Obama was selected to deliver the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and, by the year’s end, he became the fifth African-American Senator in U.S. history. Twenty-seven months later, on February 10, 2007, Obama announced his candidacy for the 2008 U.S. presidential election, as he stood before the Old State Capital building in Springfield, Illinois.
Labeled by political pundits as the candidate of "change," Barack Obama has garnered the hearts of many Americans, who know — without a shadow of doubt — that he is black, by shedding the rhetoric of race. Having a Kenyan father and American mother, Obama is well aware of his international heritage. Nevertheless, despite harsh criticism, Obama refused to get bogged down with racial politics — a stark contrast to the campaigns of his African-American forbears. In the preface of Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, Obama hoped that the story of his family "might speak in some way to the fissures of race that have characterized the American experience, as well as the fluid state of identity — the leaps through time, the collision of cultures — that mark our modern life."
On January 3, 2008, Barack Obama became the first African-American to win the Democratic Iowa caucuses — securing 38% of the vote. In his victory speech, Obama faced his supporters, saying: "On this January night, at this defining moment in history, you have done what the cynics said we couldn't do. We are choosing hope over fear, we are choosing unity over division and sending a powerful message that change is coming to America."
Three weeks later, on January 26, 2008, Barack Obama won South Carolina's Democratic primary with 55% of the votes. Obama's landslide victory was a big win — giving his campaign much-need momentum for Super Tuesday (February 5, 2008). Obama’s total vote count (~295,000) was comparable to the total turnout for the 2004 Democratic primary and he received double the votes of his most formidable opponent, Senator Hillary Clinton, who earned 27% of the vote. Once the polls closed and victory was securely intact, Obama turned to his supporters, once again, declaring: "Over two weeks ago, we saw the people of Iowa proclaim that our time for change has come. But there were those who doubted this country's desire for something new — who said Iowa was a fluke not to be repeated again. Well, tonight, the cynics who believed that what began in the snows of Iowa was just an illusion were told a different story by the good people of South Carolina."
Do Obama’s victories in Iowa and South Carolina prove America is changing? Only time will tell. Despite the outcome of Obama's presidential bid, one thing is for sure: history is being written, one state at a time. For now, the audacity of Obama's hope shines bright, as he continues his quest to reclaim the American Dream:
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A government that truly represents these Americans—that truly serves these Americans—will require a different kind of politics. That politics will need to reflect our lives as they are actually lived. It won't be prepackaged, ready to pull off the shelf. It will have to be constructed from the best of our traditions and will have to account for the darker aspects of our past. We will need to understand just how we got to this place, this land of warring factions and tribal hatreds. And we'll need to remind ourselves, despite all our differences, just how much we share: common hopes, common dreams, a bond that will not break. — Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope