It is historic that a black has been elected president, but we should remember that Obama was not running against Bull Connor, George Wallace or Strom Thurmond. Putting Obama in the same class as earlier black activists discredits the honor of those who died, suffered physical harm or were repeatedly jailed to achieve equality. Obama is not a catalyst of change, but rather its belated beneficiary. The delay, to be sure, is striking; after all, the two white elite sports of tennis and golf were integrated long before presidential politics, but Washington – as Phil Hart said of the Senate – has always been a place that always does things twenty years after it should have.
There is an informative precedent to Obama’s rise. Forty-two years ago Edward Brooke became the first black senator to be elected with a majority of white votes. Brooke was chosen from Massachusetts as a Republican in a state that was 97% white.
Jason Sokol, who teaches history at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in History News Network:
|||| On Election Day, Brooke triumphed with nearly 60 percent of the vote. Newspapers and magazines hummed with approval. The Boston Globe invoked a legacy that included the Pilgrims, Daniel Webster, and Charles Sumner, offering the Bay State as the nation’s racial and political pioneer. Journalist Carl Rowan was among the unconvinced. For whites, voting for Brooke became "a much easier way to wipe out guilt feelings about race than letting a Negro family into the neighborhood or shaking up a Jim Crow school setup." Polling numbers lent credence to Rowan’s unease. They showed that only 23 percent of Massachusetts residents approved of a statewide school integration law; just 17 percent supported open housing. ||||
That’s the problem with change coming from the top, as Obama might have heard when he was involved in real community organizing. It also may help to explain why there have been no more Catholic presidents since John Kennedy. Symbolism is not the change we need.