Obama victory celebrates civil rights journey that began with freedom rides
· Year of his birth, 1961, saw historic integration fight
· Staggering advances laid basis for nomination result
In 1960 the United States supreme court decided in Boynton v Virginia (i.e.Boynton v. Virginia, 1960, was a decision by
the Supreme Court of the United States. The case overturned a judgment convicting an African American law
student for trespassing by being in a restaurant in a bus terminal which was "whites only." ) that racial
segregation on public trains and buses violated1 federal laws that forbade discrimination. Those laws had been routinely
flouted2 in the south. One can read stories of trains reaching a southern state's border and stopping
for a moment, allowing time for the black passengers to gather their possessions and move to what
would be, from that point on, the "coloured" car.
The intractable3 southerners didn't give a fig4 for the supreme court and would not alter their practices
unless forced to. And so, the following summer, white and black young people from the north started
the famous "freedom rides", in which they boarded buses in the north and headed south, prepared to
stay put in their seats and test whether Boynton could be enforced.
The rides started in May; early on at least one bus was burned and riders were beaten. The rides went
on through the summer.
It was in that same summer, on August 4 1961, that Barack Obama was born. Little "Barry", as he preferred
being called as a kid in order to fit in a little better, watched the events of the 1960s - the progress,
the riots, Martin Luther King's assassination and the rest - from the safe and integrated remove of
Honolulu, Hawaii. He couldn't have imagined that he would one day represent a fulfilment of all the
things those students who boarded those buses wanted to change about America. But the fact that the
US has gone in less than 50 years from firebombed buses to an African-American being the nominee of
a major party for the presidency is really staggering5.
This didn't just happen. It took work, and I don't mean the work done by his campaign. It took brave
decisions and actions by many people down the years, some famous and some completely unknown to us, to
make this possible.
Lyndon Johnson ordered affirmative action6 - the programme whereby black people (and later women and
other minorities) received preferential treatments for jobs and college admissions. It can be unfair.
But affirmative action has integrated American society to levels unimagined in 1965. White and black
Americans began to work and study (if not always live) together more than ever before. People got to
know people; attitudes changed.
Many unions were among the most segregated institutions. Many unknown progressive union leaders
fought to integrate them. White firefighters and Teamsters7 saw over time that black people could
be firefighters and Teamsters after all. Attitudes changed.
And then there's the Democratic party. By the early 1970s it adopted rules that dramatically increased
the participation of black people, women and others. It wasn't always fair. It might have demanded change
too quickly. But today, you cannot attend a Democratic event practically anywhere without seeing the
real-life fruits of that effort. Attitudes, again, changed.
Then came the age of Reagan and the backlash against all this. But the backlash always had more impact
on politics than on policies. Affirmative action carried on apace. The leading professional schools
continued to take it seriously.
The diversity imperative8 surely had something to do with Harvard Law School's decision in 1988 to accept
All that in less than 50 years; it could not have taken less. Obama is second-generation, and that
too is a key factor that made his ascent possible.
The first-generation black political leaders, men like Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson, always found
it difficult to transcend9 the cause, civil rights, that had brought them into politics. Jackson
garnered10 millions of votes as a presidential candidate in 1988, but he could never quite persuade
the media and a critical mass of white people to see him as more than a civil-rights leader.
Second-generation black politicians did not have that burden, for which they can thank the
first-generation leaders who bore it. And so it has seemed possible, for the past 15 years or so,
that maybe there was someone out there who could seize the mantle11 and carry it to places that Jackson
Well, that someone, Obama, was out there, adding his small part as a community organiser and civil-rights
lawyer to the accumulated history that helped put him where is he now, a history that includes the freedom
rides of his year of birth, and in November might take him to the White House.
Source: The Guardian, June 5, 2008
1. to violate - verstoßen gegen
2. to flout - missachten
3. intractable - unfügsam, renitent
4. not to give a fig for - nicht die Bohne geben für
5. staggering - erstaunlich
6. affirmative action - Förderungsmaßnahmen zu Gunsten benachteiligter Gruppen
7. Teamsters - Gewerkschaft der Transportarbeiter
8. imperative - Gebot
9. to transcend - hinausgehen über
10. to garner - sammeln
11. to seize the mantle - die Führungsrolle übernehmen
1. Why did the so-called freedom rides take place and why were they important as to Obama's upbringing?
2. What other milestones in the civil rights movement has Obama grown up with?
3. What measure can be attributed to L. Johnson and what exactly is its objective?
4. Why have the first-generation black political leaders not succeeded in holding high political offices
in contrast to second-generation black leaders ?
5. Which other cornerstones in the civil rights movement not mentioned in the text do you know of and
describe one in more detail.