(Updated Saturday, August 2. See Update below.)
On January 2, 1960, John F. Kennedy announced his candidacy for the presidency of the United States. A month later—on February 1st, 1960—four African American college students asked to be served in an all-white restaurant at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, an act that gave birth to the Sit-In movement. Those two events had a great impact on me at the time and have since then, but there is no way I could have imagined how they would cast forty-eight year old shadows across the presidential election of 2008.
In my first year of graduate school in a Methodist seminary in Dallas, Texas, the 1960 presidential election was my first opportunity to vote. My social ethics professor, the one who a year later would take me to hear Dr. Martin Luther King at a voter registration rally, was also instrumental in getting me involved in JFK’s campaign in Dallas. When I volunteered to help, I was given a car full of JFK/LBJ signs to give to friends who would put them up in their yards. I didn’t know anybody but students in Dallas and so didn’t do a very good job. But I was committed to the JFK candidacy and embarrassed by the anti-Catholic bigotry all around me.
On September 12, 1960 Kennedy addressed the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, just a couple hundred miles down the road from Dallas. I cheered when he said
I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected President, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured -- perhaps deliberately, in some quarters less responsible than this. So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again -- not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me -- but what kind of America I believe in.His words, “the real issues in this campaign have been obscured -- perhaps deliberately,” sound eerily prescient for this 2008 presidential election. But I am not ready to talk about the present just yet.
I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the President -- should he be Catholic -- how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference, and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him, or the people who might elect him.
In April the Sit-In movement reached Dallas. One of my classmates was a black Baptist minister from East Texas; Marshall was the only African-American student in the seminary. I don’t know how we became friends; we just did. He confessed that I was his first white friend and I acknowledged that he was my first black friend. At the point we met and became friends, neither of us were social activists, that despite the fact that the South was aflame with the Civil Rights Movement. Sit-in demonstrations were beginning in Dallas, but neither of us was participating.
One day after classes four of us decided to go eat lunch together. Marshall was one of the four. In our enthusiasm we never thought about the possibility that he might not be welcome at a German deli/restaurant just off campus with the best hot potato salad I had ever eaten. Marshall knew, but he agreed to go when we assured him that he would be welcome there. When we got in line inside the deli, the owner came up to Marshall and said, “You can’t eat here. I’m German. We’re not prejudiced. But my customers… You understand don’t you?” Marshall quietly responded, “No, I don’t understand.” The four of us left the restaurant angry and embarrassed. There were sit-ins going on at strategic locations throughout the city of Dallas and every day the demonstrators were being arrested. We decided we would organize our own sit-in at the deli. The next day we went back and took up a couple of tables and just sat there, while the owner decided whether or not to call the police. After an hour or so of just sitting and receiving hostile stares and words from other customers, the manager said we could be served. We went through the line, got our food, and ate. Just to be sure there was no reneging on the breakthrough we went back at least once a week for the next month or so. But there was no more resistance.
Those were heady days! In his 1995 book, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, Barack Obama remembered the changes that seemed to have taken place in racial attitudes in the 60s:
“The stories gave voice to a spirit that would grip the nation for that fleeting period between Kennedy’s election and the passage of the Voting Rights Act: the seeming triumph of universalism over parochialism and narrow-mindedness, a bright new world where differences of race or culture would instruct and amuse and perhaps even ennoble. A useful fiction, one that haunts me no less than it haunted my family, evoking as it does some lost Eden that extends beyond mere childhood.” (pp. 25-26)It seems to me that in 2008 Obama may be haunted by the twin demons of racial and religious bigotry.
Kennedy had the demon of religious bigotry with which to contend. Even though he had eloquently confronted the religious issue in his September 1960 appearance before the Greater-Houston Ministerial Association, anti-Catholic feeling remained a wild card in the campaign.
Kennedy must have thought a lot about another Catholic before him. In 1928, Democrats nominated the Catholic Governor of New York, Al Smith, but he lost to Herbert Hoover. In an intriguing piece of remembering and speculating, John Judis asks if “Obama is Al Smith or John F. Kennedy?” The answer, he says, is by no means clear, but by looking at historical parallels, one can begin to appreciate the enormous obstacles that Obama faces this November. Judis concludes his analysis on a disquieting note.
In the end, though, Obama faces hurdles at least as great as those that Kennedy faced. Kennedy never fully overcame anti-Catholic prejudice during his campaign. It was only in the aftermath of his victory that the country fully accepted a Catholic politician as an ordinary American politician. In November, Obama may lose far more than he gains from the sheer fact of his being an African American. If, in October, the country is still discussing Obama's relationship to Reverend Wright and not the Republican record on the economy and foreign policy, he is likely to suffer defeat--not as decisively, certainly, as Al Smith did, but defeat nonetheless.Although Judis doesn’t say it, the issue with Reverend Wright is not simply one of race; it is also one of religion. Many whites are suspicious of the black Church and have been since the days of slavery and the days of the Civil Rights Movement. For them, the black Church is not really Christian. Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin point out in Politico how religion and race are cleverly interwoven in McCain’s new attacks on Obama’s patriotism.
Whatever his motives, McCain’s new hit on his foe’s patriotism hints at two years of whispered, viral rumors and myths about Obama centered on his patriotism and American values, or, more to the point, his lack thereof. The e-mails —cataloged in Snopes.com's lengthy Obama section and Obama's own “fight the smears" page — often have contradictory particulars, but the thrust is clear: Obama, various false e-mails claim, is not really a natural-born American citizen, is not really a Christian and refuses to pledge allegiance to the American flag.Will the demons of religious and racial bigotry continue to haunt this election? If the McCain ads continue, if the emails of forwarded racial/religious attacks on Obama continue, and if the experience of friends who are working voter registration tables for Obama, where they hear the slurs and see the looks of passersby continue, there is no question but that the demonic spirits are alive and well.
As I see it, the exorcism of these demons in November will require what elected Kennedy in 1960: a) Money for Obama’s campaign to combat the attacks, so if you haven’t contributed to a political campaign this is the time to begin; b) Thoughtful and direct response to the racial and religious innuendos spoken in your presence or sent to you by email; c) Talking to your friends about the campaign and how you see the issues; this is no time for silence; d) Supporting the Obama campaign in your community in whatever ways you can.
Our optimism in the early 60s may have been misplaced, but not the determination to see a new day come round. On August 28, 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, I believe Dr. King spoke to our day just as surely as he spoke to his:
Let freedom ring this November!
When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
In Saturday’s New York Times, Bob Herbert wrote a column titled, “Running While Black.” Here is a sample to entice you to read his whole column:
Gee, I wonder why, if you have a black man running for high public office — say, Barack Obama or Harold Ford — the opposition feels compelled to run low-life political ads featuring tacky, sexually provocative white women who have no connection whatsoever to the black male candidates.
Now, from the hapless but increasingly venomous McCain campaign, comes the slimy Britney Spears and Paris Hilton ad. The two highly sexualized women (both notorious for displaying themselves to the paparazzi while not wearing underwear) are shown briefly and incongruously at the beginning of a commercial critical of Mr. Obama.
The Republican National Committee targeted Harold Ford with a similarly disgusting ad in 2006 when Mr. Ford, then a congressman, was running a strong race for a U.S. Senate seat in Tennessee. The ad, which the committee described as a parody, showed a scantily clad woman whispering, “Harold, call me.”
Both ads were foul, poisonous and emanated from the upper reaches of the Republican Party. (What a surprise.) Both were designed to exploit the hostility, anxiety and resentment of the many white Americans who are still freakishly hung up on the idea of black men rising above their station and becoming sexually involved with white women.
The racial fantasy factor in this presidential campaign is out of control. It was at work in that New Yorker cover that caused such a stir. (Mr. Obama in Muslim garb with the American flag burning in the fireplace.) It’s driving the idea that Barack Obama is somehow presumptuous, too arrogant, too big for his britches — a man who obviously does not know his place.