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Obama’s Nomination Reflects ‘Evolution’ of American Democracy

August 28, 2008 at 6:45 PM EDT
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Sen. Barack Obama's nomination as the Democratic presidential candidate coincides with turning points in American civil rights history. Historians and analysts Mark Shields and David Brooks discuss the progress in American representativeness and the challenges to becoming a post-racial society.
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JIM LEHRER: Some closing thoughts now on this historic day.

We’re joined in our second studio by presidential historian Michael Beschloss, Richard Norton Smith, scholar in residence at George Mason University, and Peniel Joseph, professor of history and African-American studies at Brandeis University, author of “Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America.”

Peniel, I used the word “historic” in introducing the three of you just now. It’s a word that is used all the time. Does it really apply in a real way today, tonight?

PENIEL JOSEPH, Brandeis University: Absolutely. Forty-five years ago today, Martin Luther King, Jr., really introduced an expansive vision of American democracy.

King talked about the fierce urgency of now. King referenced Abraham Lincoln. King really has provided a context for Barack Obama’s extraordinary run to the White House.

What’s really important about the march on Washington is the fact that King argued that black equality was deeply rooted in a dream, but he said that it was an American dream.

So what’s extraordinary about tonight and the fact that an African-American is going to receive the nomination of the Democratic Party for president is that it’s really the successful evolution of King’s vision of an expansive notion of American democracy that would really have a transformative effect on race relations.

JIM LEHRER: And, Richard, Cory Booker made reference to that very point, as well, when he — in his conversation just now with Gwen.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, George Mason University: Yes. And, actually, Jim, I’d even step back a little further.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

An evolution of American democracy

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: You know, we're looking at a couple anniversaries this week in this convention. Earlier this week, of course, we observed the 88th anniversary of women getting the right to vote, and go back even further.

You know, if you take the hopeful view of American history, there were 55 white men -- hardly representative even of their stratified society -- in the summer of 1787 who gathered in silence, in privacy to write a Constitution. It was anything but representative or democratic in the way that we would understand it.

The history of America -- and I think, certainly, this party believes very much the history of this, the oldest political party in the world -- is of making that society steadily more inclusive, steadily more representative, not because people in a legislature took the initiative to pass the law, but more often than not because people went into the streets and demanded that they do so.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think, Michael? Put "historic" in your context tonight.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Well, here's one way of doing it. You know, here we are tonight, an African-American, for the first time, is poised very possibly to enter the Oval Office.

Forty-five years ago today, Martin Luther King was giving that speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial. John Kennedy was president, stayed in the White House. He thought it might be dangerous for him to be seen out there on the Lincoln Memorial, because one of those speakers might say something that might embarrass the administration, which was fighting for a civil rights bill.

He saw the civil rights movement as something that was basically good, but possibly dangerous. And Kennedy was so nervous, he got Bobby Kennedy to get a guy who worked for him to go sit on the platform in front of the Lincoln Memorial, as all those speakers were speaking, including King.

And the idea was that, if anyone began saying things that seemed too wild or dangerous, this guy would turn on a record player and blast him out with a big rendition of a record Mahalia Jackson playing "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands."

And the guy who was supposed to do this was John Reilly, the husband of our great friend, Margaret Warner.

JIM LEHRER: Oh, my. That is -- I did not know that story. That's a fascinating story.

Had you heard this story, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: I did. I had heard it.

JIM LEHRER: You did?

Democracy and race relations

JIM LEHRER: Back to you, Peniel, on this issue, that you said -- you know, this is an African-American piece of history. But on that point, you mentioned that this is -- there's more to it than that in terms of the inclusiveness of it, that you said that Martin Luther King was talking about, Cory Booker talked about. You talk about that, as well.

PENIEL JOSEPH: Well, certainly. Between 1954 and 1965, that represents the heroic period of the civil rights movement, between the Brown decision, May 17, 1954, and the August 6th passage of the Voting Rights Act by Lyndon Johnson.

We never usually think of the civil rights movement as really a transformative moment in American democracy. What Martin Luther King argued -- and, really, building on a black tradition that goes back at least to Frederick Douglass and even before -- was that American democracy and race relations were intertwined, and the only way that legitimate, real, democratic progress could be made is if we had a racial egalitarian system.

So when we think about 45 years ago, the march on Washington was a march not just for African-American freedom, but it was really a march for all American citizens.

Really, when King talked about a color-blind society, he didn't mean that we would come to a post-racial society where we ignored skin color. What he meant was that we would no longer attach negative connotations to people who were different.

And I think, when we look at Barack Obama's supporters -- and especially young people who are about 35 and under -- many of them look upon his skin color as something that's an asset, rather than an albatross.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

Richard, do you see it the same way? Do you see the progression the same way?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Yes, but, you know, I think there's a little bit of a paradox, Jim. It's a curious way to measure progress.

You know, when Shirley Chisholm ran in '72, she was always identified as the first black woman candidate. Barbara Jordan was the first black woman keynoter. Jesse Jackson was identified as a black candidate.

And, obviously, we're celebrating this milestone in terms of African-American progress, in a broader sense in American progress, and yet at the center of it is a candidate who one senses is uncomfortable not necessarily with the subject of race, but uncomfortable with being labeled as the first black candidate to be nominated by a major party.

That in a sense -- I would suggest that represents progress of a sort.

JIM LEHRER: Does it represent progress to you, Michael, as well? Do you see it the same way?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think that's right. But, you know, the way I look at it, Jim, you know, I'd like to be hopeful and say that it means a lot that an African-American might well be president in January, which I think is a wonderful thing that that's imminently possible.

African-Americans in government

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: But it obscures something else. The whole idea of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act was not only that a lot of African-Americans could vote, but you'd see a lot of them as governors, in the Congress, in other high political positions.

If Barack Obama is elected and he leaves the Senate, unless he's succeeded by an African-American, how many African-Americans will there be in the Senate?

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: That's going to be a problem.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, that's a good point, David.

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Absolutely. And I would say Barack Obama's experience in Chicago, there were racial tensions, but Harold Washington -- it was not the civil rights movement where blacks were out of power. Harold Washington was in power. He was facing a racial power in Eddie Vrdolyak and the white power structure, but it was not imbalanced. It was two rival factions.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, yes. What do you think about that?

MARK SHIELDS: It is -- I just was struck listening to our historians. I mean, I think that how short it is -- Fritz Mondale, when he ran in 1984 and I covered his campaign.

I remember a rally in the California primary where a black postal worker was there, and I said, "Do you like Mondale?" And he said, "I do, and I was going to vote for him, but now I'm going to vote for my -- I'm going to vote for Jesse Jackson."

I said, "Why?" He said, "My 9-year-old son wanted to be Magic Johnson. Since Jesse Jackson's been running, he wants to be president." I wonder how many people across this country tonight are going to be -- have their possibilities and their expectations...

JIM LEHRER: And everything.

MARK SHIELDS: ... their ambitions raised about what they can be and the obstacles are removed.

JIM LEHRER: Got you.