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The First President Who is Black

Paul Finkelman, Editor in Chief of the Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619–1895, writes on the historic election of Barack Obama as the first black president of the United States of America. This article first appeared on The Oxford African American Studies Center.

The election is over and America is forever changed. There is no other way to understand the spectacular rise of Barack Obama. When Obama was born in 1961 segregation was still legal in a third of the nation. The majority of blacks lived in the South, where few could vote; almost none went to integrated schools; and they were barred from public facilities, restaurants, hotels, theaters, amusement parks, public parks, and just about everything else. No black person had ever served on the Supreme Court, in a president’s cabinet, or as the elected governor of a state. None had been in the Senate since Reconstruction.

The bloodiest battles of the civil rights movement had yet to be fought and the civil rights martyrs who would define the decade—including and especially Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr.—were still alive. So too were the three young men who would be murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi (Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney); Viola Liuzzo, the mother from Detroit who would be murdered at Selma; and the four young girls who would be blown up in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

The America Barack Obama was born into was a deeply segregated place. The son of a black father and a white mother, his parents could not even have lived in the same house in 1961 in about eighteen different states. Anyone predicting that the son of this union would one day be president would have risked being committed in a mental hospital. The idea of a black president was not just remote, it was impossible to conceive. Only in a science fiction story about an alternative universe could the parents of the baby Barack Obama have thought he would one day be president of the Harvard Law Review, a member of the U.S. Senate, and eventually the primary resident of the White House.
Welcome to the alternative universe of 2008.

An Obama presidency will not end racism. It may in fact lead to some increase in overt racist talk, as those who don’t like his policies will blame them on race. But in other ways, an Obama presidency will change the nature of race relations. Whites who said they would never vote for a black man, in the end did just that. The Republican Party, which played the race card so effectively with Willie Horton in 1988, was unable to do so this time. Fringe Republicans and supporters of McCain offered up offensive and nasty racist characterizations of Obama, including distributing handbills that looked like food stamps with Obama on them. The McCain campaign did not embrace such actions, but neither did it denounce them. In a last desperate effort the McCain campaign focused on Obama’s former preacher, Rev. Wright. But a radical minister of a respected church is no Willie Horton, and no one seemed to be much affected by the effort.

Even as he became the first black president, Obama transcended race. His earliest support did not come from the black community, but from upper middle class Americans of all races, who were charmed by his intelligence and thoughtfulness, and who were anxious to find a new political leader in the new century. Obama campaigned on economics, foreign policy, health care, and jobs. He rarely spoke of inequality or civil rights, not because he is not concerned about them, but because he understood that they were not the central issues of the election. Furthermore, he understood that inequality in health care and job opportunities cannot be overcome until we all have health care and the economy is no longer in free fall. Thus, Obama campaigned on issues that affect all Americans, without regard to race, geography, or class.

Indeed, in the end Obama is not America’s first black president—he is the first American president who happens to be black. The difference is huge.

Recent Comments

  1. rawdawgbuffalo

    The history has only started, lets hope the red states dont desire to return to pre 1960s

  2. Book Calendar

    Barack Obama was the first African American president. However, John Hanson was the leader during the articles of confederation before the constitution was written. He was President of the Congressional Assembly from 1781-1782. Some claim he was African American. This is not 100% certain as many of the claims are often legendary and questionable.

  3. hnic

    Richard Pryor was WAYYYYY ahead on this:

    http://www.1stnigger.com

    Classic!

    The HNIC

  4. [...] Obama “black”? Why is he the first “black president”? See this and this and this for proof that he is the “first black [...]

  5. Robert

    Since President elect Obama received 50% of his DNA from his “white” American mother and 50% of his DNA from his “black” African father, it is inappropriate to call him “the first black president of America” simply because he looks more like his father than his mother. But having a “black African father and a “white” American mother clearly qualifies Barack Obama to be appropriately called the first African American president.

  6. carlos benjamin

    “. . . as those who don’t like his policies will blame them on race.”

    Really? There will likely be some who will, but I doubt you really believe anyone who dislikes his policies will blame the policies on race…. That’s ridiculous. I’ve disagreed with presidential policies of every president since Nixon and never once thought to blame them on the fact those guys were white…. why should I start operating that way now?

  7. Thomas Nelson

    The Republicans played the ‘letting criminals go free’ card with Willie Horton. Like so many bad decisions, letting him go free ended in death. If he had been afflicted with dwarfism would the Republicans have been midgetists? Having read every page of campaign promises that Obama has published (and subsequently removed because people were reading it and commenting) I can tell you there are some phenomenally good ideas in there. And some that are insane. (mandatory public service comes to mind…or Slavery as it is sometimes called) I will give him a chance, but I won’t give him a pass.

  8. Chanchal Roychoudhury

    Obama has actually made the impossible happen by triumphing over the cause of gender, advocated by Hillary Clinton, and the cause of sticking to the old-world order, represented by McCain. These twin victories will definitely boost him up in the future, should the chips be down. Change is what he stands for, and change is what he’ll bring about. More power to him!

  9. MICKEY

    I STILL DON’T GET IT. IF OBAMA IS HALF BLACK AND HALF WHITE HOW DOES THAT MAKE HIM OUR FIRST BLACK PRESIDENT? NO ONE HAS BEEN ABLE TO EXPLAIN THIS TO ME. I DON’T CARE ABOUT RACE BUT CAN A PERSON JUST DECIDE WHAT RACE HE WANTS TO BE REGARDLESS OF GENETICS? UNDER THIS PREMISE WE COULD CALL OBAMA WHITE BUT THEN ALL THE BLACK PEOPLE WOULD BE IN AN UPROAR!

  10. Tashoy Folkes

    Obama is the first black president of the United States of America I am so proud for the country and for Jamaica and Africa.From Jamaica Obama to di wurl!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  11. sandra armand

    President Obama, I know he will be a great President.President Bush has mess up our country to the max.Obama will need some help and time clean up our country.President Obama has a beautiful wife and two beautiful children.He is young,smart,and a lot of coumon sence.President Obama wasn”t raise with a silver spoon in his mouth.A rich Preident does not know what its like to be poor.I love Obama the fist time I heard him talk.All my prays to President Obama.He will be the greatest Preident.All my family voted for Obama.Guess what we are white.Iam sorry Louisiana didn’t support him,but I hope and pray he will prove them all wrong.I know he will the greatest.

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