Amazing Grace

Obama Organized Local Politicians all Over the Country 

 President Obama and Florida politician Errol Jones


  Barack Obama Invents a New American Politcs

  As Barack Obama strode on stage with the grace of a gazelle and the eye of a tiger to greet the screaming mass of humanity in Chicago’s Grant Park after receiving word that he had been elected President of the United States, I kept thinking of Rudolph Giuliani.  I could still see that condescending sneer on his greasy pie face when he ridiculed Barack’s service as a community organizer in his address to the Republican National Convention. “A community organizer…whatever that is,” he said, jiving and signifying.  Well goofball, now you know!   Community organizers know how to organize communities from the ground up, educate them on the political realities they face, and mobilize them to act in their best interests.

 The testimony of community activists in Chicago who appeared in the CNN documentary on Barack, tell the whole story about his approach to community organizing; they tell poignant stories about how Barrack trained them to speak for themselves in the corridors of state power and private corporate suites.  The tales they told was of a smart yet humble young man who learned about the needs of the people he sought to serve in public office from the ground up.   In this sense he was a fellow traveler of organizations like ACORN – whom the Republicans are attempting to demonize even as they claim to care about the predicament of the nation’s poor – and before them the SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, who moved into the most oppressed and isolated black communities in the deep south and organized them to seize power through the exercise of the ballot.  

Indeed, on can relive that experience by reading the award winning short story “The Organizer,” written in the heat of battle in Mississippi by former SNCC worker turned literature Professor Mike Thelwell.   I talked to Mike on the eve of the Presidential election and he was quite optimistic about the outcome from studying the organization that Barack had built on the ground.  Mike had organized and run the Washington office of the Mississippi Congressional Challenge of 1964, which openly challenged the legitimacy of the Mississippi delegation to the National Democratic Convention which convened in Atlantic City during that summer and damned near unseated them!.  The pivotal role Mike played in the development of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was recognized by Paul Guyot, the leader of that party, at a recent academic conference at NYU which examined the Civil /Rights movement in Mississippi.  

           Hence Mike has bonafides as a community organizer, and he is convinced that Barack’s campaign is the best organized political effort he has ever seen – an opinion that was echoed by  crack union organizers, veterans of many political campaigns,  who canvassed communities across the nation in behalf of Barack’s candidacy.   “Calling the outcome of this campaign wasn’t really that hard to do,” says Thelwell, “When you combine the attractiveness of the candidate and his skill as a orator with the efficiency of his organization, it was fairly obvious that they could win.  Of course there is always the racial factor to consider, but my experience with SNCC left me with the firm conviction that the right black man with the right plan could lead whites too.  I witnessed this kind of interracial cooperation in the civil rights movement – which could not have succeeded otherwise,”Thelwell recalls

           The way the Republicans have screwed up the country today, and the masses of people who have been hurt by their corruption, incompetence, cronyism, and crimes, all contributed to creating the conditions for a skilled community organizer with an inclusive plan for all who are in pain to seize the moment.  When viewed from the perspective of the struggle to build the Mississippi Democratic Party it is possible to clearly discern what is new about the Obama Campaign.  To begin with, the Internet didn’t exist in the 1960’s and this has greatly expanded the reach and the power of the organizer. 

  The advantage offered by the astute employment of this marvelous new tool has forever changed the nature of the political game.  It has expanded the ability of an organization with limited resources – financial and human – ad infinitum.  For one thing it has given the Obama campaign entrée to the youth population who cannot be reached by conventional methods of communication employed by political parties, and the old farts in the Republican party didn’t have a clue.  Just like their standard bearer, who admitted that he didn’t even know how to send a e-mail!

 The Internet also offers a very lucrative method of raising funds as well as recruiting volunteers, which is the fuel that runs political campaigns regardless of ideology or objectives.  The Obama campaign was the first to make full use of the fund raising capacity of the Internet and they have broken all previous records.  They achieved this amazing feat not by employing rich fat cats who pay lip service to the letter of election laws, while violating the spirit of those laws with barely legal and morally questionable “bundling of donations” from their affluent friends and business associates. 

           Obviously, an elected official cannot be free of the influence of the “special interests” who provide this cash; that’s the nature of the game. We see all that we need to know about the corrosive influence of special interest money in the corruption of the Bush Administration from Enron’s role in shaping their energy policy to Halliburton’s sweetheart deals with the defense department – which was headed by “Dirty Dick” Cheney, the former CEO of Halliburton.  Having Dirty Dick in charge of the Defense Department, which lets hundreds of millions of dollars in no-bid contracts to Halliburton, is like placing the wolf in charge of the sheep!

  That’s why the method of Obama’s record breaking fundraising is of critical importance; it was accomplished with individual donors whose contributions rarely exceeded a hundred dollars.  This amounts to the creation of a new independent people’s movement.  It is the most impressive exercise in democracy that I have witnessed in nearly a half century of watching elections, because it leaves Barack beholden only to the American people: And that’s the way it ought to be.

 Hence the  Obama campaign, through it’s use of the internet, and it’s determination to take the high ground and dwell above the politics of personal destruction, has set an new standard of political morality and invented a new way to play the politics game that is at once effective, inspirational and highly ethical.  It is a true innovation in a critical area of American Civilization that contributes to the expansion of democracy and enriches our civic life.   This Chi-town pol is as impressive in his game as that other lanky b-ball player form Chicago that changed his game and won the admiration of the nation, Michael Jordon.  Now when kids are asked if they want to be like Mike, they can reply no!  I want to be like Barack!

Fortunately, this game changing innovation in American political life will not go unnoticed, as have so many other critical innovations that Afro-Americans have contributed to American civilization that has enriched the life of the nation.  As early as 1933 Dr. William Edward Burghardt Dubois, historian, sociologists, economist, and twentieth century America’s most learned and prophetic social critic called our attention to black America’s innovative role in enriching the national culture and advancing social relations in this nation.  Yet given the virulently racist climate of the times those contributions were ignored by the white opinion makers who dominated the public discourse.

young DuBois W.E.B. DuBois

Writing in an essay titled simply “Black America,” which was published in the famous anthology Negro, Dr. Dubois observed that black Americans could no longer be regarded “simply as a class of problems, but as persons who because of their long connection with American life are part, and an important part, of American Civilization.  Democracy in America, for instance, has been developed because of the pressure of the slaves for freedom and recognition.  The status of women has been changed greatly because the Negro woman was a working woman before she was a housewife, and her example and competition has spread among white working women.  Education, particularly in the South, has become popular, and the public school is an accepted institution, primarily because of the insistence of the Negroes on free education.”  And after surveying the role of African labor in the building of America Dr. Dubois concluded “When we have a greater respect for work, this too will be recognized as a great contribution.  Beyond this the Negro has helped in skilled work and invention.” 

            Then the learned Doctor turned his attention to the cultural sphere, possessing as he did a comprehensive knowledge of all aspects of our civilization.  “On the other hand,” he observes, “we are already beginning to see the beauty of Negro art in American literature, in music and dancing, and in such social ideals as good will and sacrifice.”  And he predicted: “”We shall come to see beauty in other lines to which the American Negro has contributed.  We can, therefore, well think of the Negro element in America as an integral part of American life and as having made a permanent contribution to American Civilization.”  And no doubt that along with Jazz, blues, peanut butter, visionary moral leaders, and converting basketball into a ballet for agile giants, a new way to play the political game will be added to Black folks’ gifts to America.  

           The effects of Barack Obama’s highly principled and innovative campaign for the Oval Office will reverberate for many years after he has left that office, concluding what I believe will be a great presidency.  Perhaps two New York Times columnists put it best.  Nicholas Kristof tells us that his eleven year old daughter is so inspired by her work on Obama’s campaign that she has decided she wants to become a community organizer, and the ever insightful and amusing Maureen Dowd, who won a Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary and grew up in Washington, offers this vision of the significance of Barack Obama’s victory.  “There have been many awful mistakes made in this country, but now we have another chance.  As we start fresh with a constitutional law professor and Senator from the land of Lincoln, the Lincoln memorial might be getting its gleam back.”

 Better still, the famous “Freedman’s Memorial” statute sculpted by Thomas Ball, and greeted with skepticism by Frederick Douglass in his dedication speech at the unveiling, because the slave is still on his knees even though he is breaking his chains and Abe Lincoln’s posture suggests that he is saying to the newly emancipated slave “Go and sin no more,” might serve as a marker of how far we have tread as a multi-racial community in America with the election of Barack Obama for President.   And his gift of a new and inclusive politics should serve as the bench mark for our journey.  The simple truth is that Barack Obama’s election has converted America’s claim as a land of freedom and equal opportunity, that can serve as a beacon for oppressed people around the world, into something more that the “brass fronted impudence and hollow mockery” that Douglass aptly labeled it in his famous fourth of July Speech to his fellow white Americans a century and a half ago.  And that’s something really new under the American sun. 


Commentaries On the Times

Janurary 2009 

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