Obama: Standing on Their Shoulders

A look back at the foundation laid for Barack Obama's candidacy

who are not African American have been helpful for setting the stage for the first black president,” says Fauntroy, author of Republicans and the Black Vote.

Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress in 1968, became the first black woman from a major party to run for president of the United States.

“Shirley Chisholm, Angela Davis, and Jesse Jackson ran not so much knowing they would be elected president,” Pedescleaux says. “They ran to get the issues out and on the table. Once the major parties see interest in those issues, they absorb them and [those issues] become part of the major party agenda. Shirley Chisholm fought for women’s rights, and now women are a big part of both of the parties, and women’s issues are woven into the agendas of both major parties.”

“Before Barack Obama, no African American had done as well as Jesse Jackson Sr. did in his presidential campaigns of 1984 and 1988,” Fauntroy says.

Jackson, founder of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, won 11 primaries and caucuses and 1,218 of the 3,911 delegates in 1988. He came in second at the Democratic National Convention of that year. At one point, after winning the Michigan primary, Jackson was considered the frontrunner in the race, ahead of Michael Dukakis, the eventual Democratic nominee, and future vice president Al Gore.

“In many ways I think that Jackson was responsible for mobilizing black people in the 1980s,” says Wilbur C. Rich, the William R. Kenan professor of political science at Wellesley College. “He said this is the second stage of the civil rights movement. A lot of people voted for the first time. He was going into places that white candidates never went to, and it was good.”

Despite Jackson’s victories and winning the caucus in Vermont, a state that, according to 1980 census figures, was 99% white, Jackson and his candidacy has in recent years been somewhat dismissed as less than substantial. This is because, among other reasons, he was a candidate that strongly advocated for issues directly affecting the black community.

Unlike Jackson, it seems that Obama is considered by many as the American candidate as opposed to just the black candidate. Constituents felt the same way about Douglas Wilder of Virginia, the country’s first black governor, and Norman Rice, who in 1989 was elected Seattle’s first black mayor despite a black population of less than 10%.

According to a recent Gallup poll, a large majority of black people, 78%, and an even larger majority of white people, 88%, say the fact that Obama is black makes no difference in terms of their likelihood of voting for him for president. “The country is ready [for a black president] because of Obama’s presence, his personality and his life story,” Fauntroy says.

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