In “The Bridge,” The New Yorker’s David Remnick uses extensive on-the-record interviews with friends and teachers, mentors and disparagers, family members and President Obama himself to show how a rootless, unaccomplished and confused young man created himself as a community organizer in Chicago, which would propel him to Harvard Law School, where his sense of a greater mission emerged. An excerpt.
This is how it began, the telling of a story that changed America.
At midday on March 4, 2007, Barack Obama, the junior senator from Illinois, was scheduled to speak at Brown Chapel, in Selma, Alabama. His campaign for President was barely a month old, and he had come South prepared to confront, for the first time, the Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton. He planned to discuss in public what so many believed would ultimately be his undoing — his race, his youth, his “exotic” background. “Who is Barack Obama?” Barack Hussein Obama? From now until Election Day, his opponents, Democratic and Republican, would ask the question on public platforms, in television and radio commercials, often insinuating a disqualifying otherness about the man: his childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia; his Kenyan father; his Kansas-born, yet cosmopolitan, mother.
Obama’s answer to that question helped form the language and distinctiveness of his campaign. Two years out of the Illinois State Senate and barely free of his college loans, Obama entered the Presidential race with a serious, yet unexceptional, set of center-left policy positions. They were not radically different from Clinton’s, save on the crucial question of the Iraq war. Nor did he possess an impressive résumé of executive experience or legislative accomplishment. But who Obama was, where he came from, how he came to understand himself, and, ultimately, how he managed to project his own temperament and personality as a reflection of American ambitions and hopes would be at the center of his rhetoric and appeal. In addition to his political views, what Obama proposed as the core of his candidacy was a self — a complex, cautious, intelligent, shrewd, young African-American man. He was not a great man yet by any means, but he was the promise of greatness. There, in large measure, was the wellspring of his candidacy, its historical dimension and conceit, and there was no escaping its gall. Obama himself used words like “presumptuous” and “audacious.”
In Selma, Obama prepared to nominate himself as the inheritor of the most painful of all American struggles, the struggle of race: not race as invoked by his predecessors in electoral politics or in the civil-rights movement, not race as an insistence on ethnicity or redress; rather, Obama would make his biracial ancestry a metaphor for his ambition to create a broad coalition of support, to rally Americans behind a narrative of moral and political progress. He was not necessarily the hero of that narrative, but he just might be its culmination. In the months to come, Obama borrowed brazenly from the language and imagery of an epochal American movement and applied it to a campaign for the Presidency.
The city of Selma clusters around the murky waters of the Alabama River. Selma had been a prosperous manufacturing center and an arsenal for the Confederate Army. Now it is a forlorn place of twenty thousand souls. Broad Street ordinarily lacks all but the most listless human traffic. African Americans live mostly in modest houses, shotgun shacks, and projects on the east side of town; whites tend to live, more prosperously, on the west side.
Selma’s economy experiences a burst of vitality during the annual flowerings of historical memory. The surviving antebellum plantation houses are, for the most part, kept up for the few tourists who still come. In mid-April, Civil War buffs arrive in town to commemorate the Confederate dead in a re-enactment of the Battle of Selma, where, in 1865, a Confederate general, a particularly sadistic racist named Nathan Bedford Forrest, suffered defeat. The blacks in town do not share in the mood of Confederate nostalgia. An almost entirely black housing project just outside of town was, for decades, named for General Forrest, who had traded slaves and became Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Video: Afghanistan trip marked ‘progress,’ Obama says
After the Civil War, black students came to Selma University, a small Bible college, and the town — a town of churches — became renowned as a center of African-American preaching. Selma, Ralph Abernathy wrote in his memoirs, “was to many of us the ‘Capital of the Black Belt,’ a place where intelligent young people and learned elders gathered.” At the same time, because of the grip of Jim Crow, Selma was, as late as the nineteen-sixties, a place of literacy tests and poll taxes; almost no blacks were able to register to vote. Surrounded by disdainful white registrars, they were made to answer questions like “How many bubbles are there in a bar of soap?”
The local sheriff, Jim Clark, was in the grotesque folkloric mold of Birmingham’s Bull Connor; he wore a button reading “Never” on his uniform and could be relied upon to take the most brutal measures against any sign of anti-segregationist protest — which is why, as the civil-rights movement developed, the grassroots leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (S.C.L.C.) made Selma a test case in the struggle for voting rights.
On January 2, 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr., came to Brown Chapel, a brick citadel of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and told the congregation that Selma had become a “symbol of bitter-end resistance to the civil-rights movement in the Deep South.” Just as Montgomery had been the focus of the first bus boycotts and the struggle for civil rights and equal access to public facilities, Selma, King and his comrades decided, would be the battleground for voting rights.
Barack Obama had been invited to Selma more than a month before the anniversary event by his friend John Lewis, a veteran congressman from Atlanta. In his late sixties, portly and bald, Lewis was known around Capitol Hill and in the African-American community less as a legislator than as a popularly elected griot, a moral exemplar and a wizened truthteller of the civil-rights movement. During the long “conservative darkness,” from the first Reagan inaugural onward, Lewis said, it was especially “hard and essential” to keep progressive politics alive. “And the only way to do that was to keep telling the story,” he said.While King was organizing for the S.C.L.C. in Alabama, Lewis had been the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Lewis was present at nearly every important march. He was at King’s side at the front of countless demonstrations and in meetings with John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson in the Oval Office. He was the youngest — and most militant — of the many speakers at the March on Washington in 1963; now he was the only one among them still alive. People called John Lewis a hero every day of his life, but now he was feeling quite unheroic, unsure whom to support: the Clintons, who had “never disappointed” him over the years, or a young and talented man who had introduced himself to the country with a thrilling speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention in Boston. At first, Lewis signaled to Obama that he would be with him, but the Clintons and their circle were appealing to his sense of friendship and loyalty — and they were almost as hard to resist as the lure of history. Feeling acute pressure, Lewis promised both the Clintons and Obama that he would soon have “an executive session with myself” and decide.
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On March 15th, before a joint session of Congress, President Johnson delivered the most ringing endorsement of civil rights ever by a sitting President. In his first twenty years in the House and Senate, from 1937 to 1957, Johnson had voted against all kinds of bills proposing to help blacks, including anti lynching measures. As Robert Caro makes clear in his multivolume biography of Johnson, L.B.J. had been profoundly affected by his experience as a young man in Cotulla, Texas, teaching poor Mexican-American children, but it was only in the mid-fifties — when, as Caro writes, his “ambition and compassion were finally pointing in the same direction”— that he allowed himself to start working in behalf of civil rights. By 1965, the white supremacists in Congress were weak; Johnson had crushed Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election; the balance of power was shifting, making a bill possible. That night, Johnson said, “At times, history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama.” Johnson’s Justice Department had drafted a bill two days before Bloody Sunday. He said that, even if the country could double its wealth and “conquer the stars,” if it proved “unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation.” The voting rights act that he was introducing, he said, would prove insufficient if it allowed the country to relax in its pursuit of justice for the men and women whose forebears had come to America in slave ships: Video: Obama on faith, family and basketball
What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement, which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life.
Their cause must be our cause, too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.
Watching Johnson that night on television in Selma, King wept. Six days later, on March 21st, King, Lewis, and thousands of others set out from Brown Chapel on a peaceful march to Montgomery, the “Cradle of the Confederacy.” When, five days later, they reached the capital and its government square, King spoke to the crowd as Governor Wallace peeked through the blinds of his office. King declared that segregation was “on its deathbed.” Bombings, church fires, or the beating of clergymen would not deter them. “We are on the move now!” King said. And his aim, “our aim,” was not to defeat or humiliate the white man, but, rather, to “win his friendship and understanding” and achieve a society “that can live with its conscience”:
I know you are asking today, “How long will it take?” ... I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long because truth pressed to the earth will rise again.
How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever.
How long? Not long, because you shall reap what you sow ....
How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. Slideshow: Obama’s Oval Office
This last refrain became Barack Obama’s favorite quotation. He was three when it was uttered. Over the years, Obama read the leading texts of the black liberation movement: the slave narratives; the speeches of Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, and Malcolm X; the crucial court opinions of desegregation; John Lewis’s memoir. Scenes of the movement’s most terrifying and triumphant moments — dogs tearing at marchers, King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, his assassination on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, in Memphis — unspooled in his mind in “black and white,” he said, exciting his imagination and deepening his longing for a firm identification with African-American community and history and for a sense of purpose in his life. Obama’s racial identity was both provided and chosen; he pursued it, learned it. Surrounded by a loving white mother and sympathetic white grandparents, and raised mainly on a multicultural island where the one missing hue was his own, Obama had to claim that identity after willful study, observation, even presumption. On a visit to Chicago during law school, Obama, a friend noticed, was reading “Parting the Waters,” the first volume of Taylor Branch’s magnificent history of the civil-rights movement. Only a few years earlier, he had endured a tumultuous inner struggle about his identity, but Obama nodded at the book and said with absolute confidence, “Yes, it’s my story.”
In January, 2007, a month before Obama formally declared his candidacy for President, the polls indicated that Hillary Clinton had a firm hold on the African-American vote. At that time, not all African-Americans knew who Obama was; among those who did, many were either wary of another symbolic black candidacy, another Shirley Chisholm or Jesse Jackson, or loyal to the Clintons.
African-Americans know that their votes are especially crucial in the nominating process. “The Negro potential for political power is now substantial,” Dr. King wrote in 1963, in “Why We Can’t Wait.” “In South Carolina, for example, the 10,000-vote margin that gave President Kennedy his victory in 1960 was the Negro vote ... Consider the political power that would be generated if the million Americans who marched in 1963 also put their energy directly into the electoral process.” King’s prediction, which preceded passage of the Voting Rights Act and the registration of many hundreds of thousands more black voters, became an axiom of Democratic Party politics. No one knew this calculus better than Bill Clinton. A white Southerner, Clinton had read black writers and had black friends — a sharp difference from nearly all of his predecessors. The syndicated black radio host Tom Joyner recalled how Clinton awarded Rosa Parks the Congressional Medal of Freedom in 1996, and, at the ceremony, Jessye Norman led the audience in “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the James Weldon Johnson hymn commonly known as the Negro national anthem. “Every living black dignitary was in the audience that great day and everyone stood and sang the first verse loudly and proudly,” Joyner recalled. “As we got to the second verse, the singing got faint. Most of us left it up to Miss Norman, who had the words in front of her. The only person in the room who sang every word of every verse by heart was Bill Clinton. By the third verse, he and Jessye Norman were doing a duet.”
Writing in The New Yorker in 1998, in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the sanctimony parade that followed, Toni Morrison remarked that Bill Clinton, “white skin notwithstanding,” had been the “first black president,” a Southerner born poor, a “saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk food-loving boy,” the first national leader to have a real affinity for and ease with African-American friends, churches, and communities. Slideshow: Life inside the White House
In January, according to a Washington Post/ABC poll, Hillary Clinton was ahead among African-Americans three to one. Obama had failed so far to win support from civil-rights leaders. There was a constant stream of negative talk in public forums and on the Internet, trash talk about his patriotism, his left-wing associations, how he’d been schooled and indoctrinated at an Indonesian madrassa. Some civil-rights leaders of the older generation, like Jackson and the Reverend Al Sharpton, who were worried about being surpassed by a new generation, betrayed their anxieties by trying to instruct Barack Obama on the question of genuine blackness. “Just because you are our color doesn’t make you our kind,” Sharpton said.
Obama and his closest aides recalled that he had been in a similar position at the start of the Illinois Senate race in 2004, with many urban blacks more comfortable, at first, with machine politicians and many whites more comfortable with just about anyone but a black man with a foreign-sounding name that rhymed with the first name of the most notorious terrorist in the world. “We’d been in the same place before,” David Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist, recalled. “But one of the most important things you face in a Presidential campaign is the fact that there is almost a year between the announcement and the first real contest, in the Iowa caucuses, and so you have a whole series of surrogate contests in the interim.” Selma was the first of those surrogate contests. One week before the event, the Clinton campaign learned that Obama was speaking at Brown Chapel. They hurriedly made arrangements for Hillary Clinton to speak three blocks down the street, at First Baptist Church. Artur Davis, an African-American congressman from Alabama and a friend of Obama’s, said that Hillary Clinton knew she had to come to Selma: “There was no better place than this stage to make a statement about her seriousness in contesting the black vote.” The former President would come, too, and be inducted into the National Voting Rights Museum’s “hall of fame.”
Bill Clinton was wise enough to know that in Selma Hillary could emerge from the day’s news cycle with, at best, an undramatic, gaffe-less draw. He had been counseled to keep his remarks to a minimum in Selma lest he draw attention from his wife. When he and Hillary spoke side by side at the funeral of Coretta Scott King, in February, 2006, he had been masterly, heartfelt, as good, many felt, as any of the best black preachers in the pulpit that day. By comparison, Hillary, speaking just after him, was stiff, awkward, routine. When Bill Clinton read the comparative accounts of their speeches, he told me that he said to Hillary, “If we both spoke at the Wellesley reunion, you’d probably get a better reception. You can’t pay any attention to this. This is my life. I grew up in these churches. I knew more people by their first name in that church than at the end of my freshman year. This is my life. You don’t have to be better at this than me. You got to be better than whoever.”
At First Baptist, Hillary Clinton spoke earnestly and well. (Her husband did not attend the speech.) Her goal was to project the movement forward and to place herself within its mainstream. “After all the hard work getting rid of literacy tests and poll taxes, we’ve got to stay awake because we’ve got a march to continue,” she said in her speech. “How can we rest while poverty and inequality continue to rise?”
Clinton tied the history of Selma and civil rights to a narrative of American emancipation, generalizing its lessons and implications to include herself. The Voting Rights Act, she insisted, was a triumph for all men and women. “Today it is giving Senator Obama the chance to run for President,” she said. “And, by its logic and spirit, it is giving the same chance to Governor Bill Richardson to run as a Hispanic. And, yes, it is giving me that chance, too.” The writing was, at times, more convincing than the delivery, especially when Clinton, a daughter of northern Illinois, began dropping her “g”s and channeling her inner Blanche DuBois. Where had that accent come from? Some of Obama’s black critics, especially those steeped in the church and the lineage of civil-rights-era speakers, said that he did not have a natural gift for the pulpit, either, that his attempts at combining the rhetoric of the sacred and the street — a traditional language of liberation and exhortation — sometimes sounded forced. But it took no expert to hear the extra effort in Clinton’s voice. She was sincere, she was trying, but she did not win the day in Selma.
Excerpted from “The Bridge” by David Remnick Copyright © 2010 by David Remnick. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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