Matthew Countryman is a scholar whom I had never heard of before, but by the end of his lecture yesterday evening, I was very impressed with. His studies of African American history revolve around the theme proving that racism was never only a southern phenomenon. Countryman sees black power in its traditional sense as an extension of the Civil Rights Movement that carries on a legacy today. His lecture last night, “From Black Power to the First Black President” connected history to the present moment in regards to black politics. This lecture focused on President Barack Obama in relation to a new generation of black politicians who are more post-partisan and universally appealing than traditional “black power” figures. Many have suggested that President Obama signifies the end of black politics. To this, Countryman says no. His lecture connected the legacy of black power with electoral politics leading up to Obama’s election.
I would argue that Barack Obama can be viewed as one of the most charismatic figures in American presidential history. Many of his “charming” attributes lead to his election. President Obama is appealing to multiple groups of people because of his unique background. Two different narratives combine to create the “story” of Obama – the story of a black man as well as the son of an immigrant. Obama also denounced black nationalism, that is, the belief that the United States is inherently racist. This makes him different from previous “black power” nationalists and more appealing as a genuinely “American” citizen. His election can be seen as the culmination of black power’s alliance with the Democratic Party.
Historically, there has been a problem with how African Americans have seen themselves as part of the political process. They have always viewed themselves as second-class members of the electorate; as not having much influence in politics. This idea is called “plantation politics”. Malcom X’s view of black power was community control; for blacks to be running their own communities in separation from whites. After the gains of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, political control over a city was the best way to extend the power gained from this decade. Black mayors were elected in many northeastern cities, especially. While these gains should not be trivialized, the transition of blacks into poltical power in cities can be seen as an inevitable product of a demographic change. Due to the phenomenon of white flight, blacks made up the majority of the population in many cities. Malcom X once said that “the city is the black man’s land”. Blacks had to take advantage of this newly gained political power, and attempted to “create a revolution through the ballot box”, said Countryman. There are three core principles of black power that were to be carried out. The first states that racism is constitutive of American society. Secondly, the idea that change is rooted in individual rights had to be eliminated. The final platform of the black power movement was that racial unity must be the first step in this process. We can only see real progress if we have advancement for the whole community.
Once black mayors were first elected, they promised to represent the whole city, proving that racial progress is inherent to advancing the entire community. This was the fundamental point of contention between two schools of thought within the black power movement: nationalists and pluralists. Pluralists believed that in order to advance the black power agenda, politicians could not exclude whites. Race relations had to be reogranized in order to see progress. Harold Washington, the first African American mayor of Chicago, was a model for the pluralist model. He tried to appeal to whites as well as blacks (he got 12% of the white vote along with 98% of the black vote). Washington focused his interests on the city as a whole, and tried to appeal outside the black community. Washington established a standard for the “new generation” of black politicians, such as Barack Obama. The Reverend Jesse Jackson, who first ran as a typical “black power” politician, modified his campaign the second time around as a coalition campaign, advocating for the “rainbow coalition” made up of people of different races.
In wrapping up his lecture, Countryman said that Obama is different than the traditional image of a black power politician. His candidacy and presidency builds on the tradition of arguing for a new kind of politics and a message of change. His appeal as an agent of change was critical to his election. He advocates to reorganize the power of the government, which is appealing to citizens of all races. Obama’s election signals a new kind of politics that links black and white traditions for the advancement of the entire country which we will see play out over the next four years.