Barack Hussein Obama, 44th President of the United States (2009 to present).
Credit: Image courtesy of The White House.
What we have already achieved gives us hope — the audacity to hope — for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.
—Barack Obama, Philadelphia, March 18, 2008
The election of Barack Obama is commonly described as "historic." But what does that term mean? Does the historic character of his election mean different things to different people? Does its meaning depend on the race, age, class, gender, geographic region, or political party of the person using the term? While the most common usage refers to the fact that, for the first time, an African American will be President of the United States, the challenges that he will face both at home and abroad are historic as well: the country is fighting two wars and confronts the most serious financial problems since the Great Depression. This lesson focuses on the relationship between the Civil Rights Movement and Obama's election, but it also asks students why they think Barack Obama's election is "historic."
On August 6, 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, intended "to enforce the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution of the United States." This law was one of the great achievements of the Civil Rights Movement. Created to ensure that all citizens be permitted to exercise their political rights, section 2 of the act states: "No voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure shall be imposed or applied by any State or political subdivision to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color." Up until this time, many African Americans had been denied the right to vote. Despite the language of the fifteenth amendment — "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any States on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude," state legislators and local election officials had used a variety of tactics — from poll taxes to literacy test s— to deny suffrage to African Americans. Exclusion from voting, for all practical purposes, also meant exclusion from political office.
Passage of the Voting Rights Act opened the way for African Americans to participate in the political process. At the same time, the law enabled African Americans to become viable candidates for elected office. Since 1965 African Americans have been most successful in winning election to local office; mayors in several of the nation's largest cities either have been or are black. Two states, Virginia and Massachusetts, have chosen African Americans to serve as their governors. Many more have elected African Americans to serve in their state legislatures and/or represent them in the United States Congress.
During the four decades following passage of the Voting Rights Act, several African Americans announced their candidacies and campaigned for the Democratic Party's nomination, thereby proclaiming the possibility, the promise, that one day a member of their race would become President of the United States. The election of Barack Obama is the fulfillment of that promise.
Barack Obama was born in 1961. The Civil Rights Movement was a powerful force in American society. The Supreme Court in 1954 had declared that segregation in public schools violated the Constitution. Martin Luther King, Jr., had assumed leadership of the Movement the following year when African Americans in Montgomery, Alabama launched a boycott of the city's segregated buses. By 1961 membership in civil rights organizations was reaching an all-time high and increasing numbers of Americans—black and white—were calling for an end to racial discrimination.
In many respects, the year of Obama's birth was a turning point. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had enforced judicial decisions to end school segregation, had been replaced by John F. Kennedy. But Kennedy, assuming office at a time when the Democratic Party was dependent on Southern votes to stay in power, was himself reluctant to use his authority to protect demonstrators. For over two years, he watched as civil rights protestors clashed with police. Then, in May 1963, police in Birmingham, Alabama used fire hoses and German shepherds against African American children marching peacefully in support of civil rights. Kennedy realized that the time had come to propose legislation to ensure the rights of these children and of all Americans. When A. Philip Randolph proposed a March on Washington later that summer, Kennedy along with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson met with the organizers to attempt to dissuade them. John Lewis, who attended the meeting at the White House, writes in his memoir, Walking with the Wind, Kennedy "was mightily concerned about the success of the civil rights bill, and he didn't see how this march was going to help anything." (p. 205) A few days later, Americans watched and listened as Martin Luther King told of his dream for this nation.
Following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963, Lyndon Johnson became president and asked Congress to honor JFK's memory by passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This wide-ranging piece of legislation prohibits discrimination in public accommodations, makes discrimination based on race, gender, religion, and ethnicity illegal, and authorizes the Justice Department to initiate suits to challenge segregation and protect voting rights.
President Johnson proposed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, following the murder by a deputy sheriff of a voting rights activist in Alabama and the subsequent attack by state troopers on individuals participating in the civil rights march in Selma. The law outlawed literacy tests and required jurisdictions with a history of voting discrimination to obtain "pre-clearance" from the Attorney General or a federal district judge for any new voting practices and procedures. It also gave federal examiners the power to register voters. By the end of 1968, over 400 African Americans held elective office in the South and over fifty percent of the African Americans in nine southern states were registered to vote.
In the late 1950's, conservatives criticized the Supreme Court for engaging in "judicial activism" , i.e., legislating their own views of desirable social policy from the bench. In response, the Court decided few civil rights cases following the crisis in Little Rock, Arkansas. However, with encouragement from both the executive and legislative branches, the justices in the 1960s again began to tackle issues — from gerrymandered voting districts to interracial marriage — that would ensure not only political but also social and economic rights to African Americans. In the decades that followed, the Court would place a moratorium on the death penalty until states could demonstrate that use of that penalty was not racially biased, uphold affirmative action programs designed to compensate for years of discrimination, and scrutinize employment practices. All of these decisions proved to be controversial with those who saw the Court as going beyond its proper role in the constitutional system and in effect acting as a kind of "superlegislature".
Actions taken by the federal government opened the way for civil rights organizations and individuals — grass roots activists as well as leaders — to realize the dream of equality cherished by many Americans. The fulfillment of that dream has been long in coming and, for many, is still a distant hope, made more tangible perhaps by the election of the nations first African American President.
Make a list of the facts that students already know about Barack Obama. Insofar as possible, arrange the information chronologically.
Students should read the following biographical information about Barack Obama:
Before beginning the discussion, review terms such as constitutional law, law review, racial profiling, point person, and community organizer.
Questions for discussion:
Barack Obama made his first major appearance on the national political scene on July 27, 2004, when he delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. Obama began the speech by introducing himself and concluded by discussing his vision of America.
Give students the following discussion questions before they listen to and/or read Obama's speech.
Questions for discussion:
One of the major achievements of the Civil Rights Movement was passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which — to quote President Johnson — gave "teeth" to the fifteenth amendment. While much work still lay ahead to ensure that blacks registered and voted despite serious threats of harm, the federal law was a critical step toward allowing African Americans to exercise their full political rights as American citizens.
Coincidentally, the Vietnam War raised questions about sending young Americans to war while, at the same time, denying them the right to vote. Congress responded by proposing an amendment that would lower the voting age from 21 to 18, and state legislatures ratified the amendment. The twenty-sixth amendment became part of the Constitution on July 1, 1971.
These changes in federal law, statutory and constitutional, dramatically increased the number of Americans qualified to vote; however, many have been reluctant or disinterested in participating in the political process. Barack Obama's candidacy changed that, bringing citizens — notably African Americans and younger voters — to the polls in record numbers.
Students should read the following documents:
(3) Letter written by New Jersey Senator Harrison A. Williams to the Senate subcommittee that was reviewing the Voting Rights Act to determine whether it had achieved its goals or should be changed before being renewed. The law was extended in 1970 for five more years and, in subsequent years, has been further extended. The letter is available on the EDSITEment-reviewed website History Matters.
Questions for discussion:
On March 18, 2008, in the midst of his campaign for the Democratic nomination, Barack Obama delivered an address in Philadelphia titled "A More Perfect Union." This address was written in response to inflammatory remarks made by Obama's former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who had been serving as an unpaid advisor to the campaign. While race had been mentioned frequently throughout Obama's campaign, primarily by the press and political pundits, it did not become an "issue" until the Rev. Wright expressed his anger publicly. For political reasons, Obama felt compelled to distance himself from the pastor yet, at the same time, explain the reason for the resentment felt by Wright and other African Americans of his generation. Obama used this occasion to share his own ideas about race.
For homework, give each student a copy of the abridged speech with instructions to read and mark what s/he considers the most important ideas. The speech is available both in audio and print format on the National Public Radio website. An abridged version is also available here.
In class, create small groups where students can share what they learned from reading the speech, discuss the ideas they found most important, and explain why they highlighted specific passages. This should take between 20-30 minutes.
Ask students from the groups to report on their discussions. This can be done either by asking them to list key points on the board or present their ideas orally. When the reports are complete, ask the class to formulate a statement summarizing the main idea of Obama's speech and choose two or three key points that support that idea. The main idea should answer the question: "What role does President Obama believe race should play in this country?"
Students should write a one-page paper answering the question:
Does the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States mark the end of the Civil Rights Movement?
A. On January 10, 2009, the New York Times reported that "The Supreme Court on Friday [January 9] agreed to decide whether a central provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is still needed to protect minority voters, given the passage of more than four decades and the election of the nation's first African American president."
The provision in question — the same provision that was in question in 1969 when Senator Williams wrote to the Senate subcommittee —requires certain state and local governments to obtain permission to make any changes affecting voting. This requirement had been imposed on states and voting districts that had a history of discriminating against African American voters
Discuss: Should the Supreme Court remove this requirement to allow states and voting districts to make changes without the approval of the federal government?
B. Two leading presidential historians discuss the "historic" nature of Obama's election.
Questions for discussion:
Why might your ideas of what is significant about Obama's election be different from those of the historians?
3 class periods