Dreaming Obama in North Carolina

Dreaming Obama in North Carolina

Conversations with historian John Hope Franklin and civil rights heroes about race, memory and the possibility of change.


Raleigh, North Carolina

Dr. John Hope Franklin, at 94, remains a formidable progressive historian, having lived through two world wars, five decades of segregation, the sixties civil rights movement and now Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Since there is no comparable or greater authority alive, I was eager to ask him to evaluate this long history. I ventured to North Carolina for meetings and dinner with Dr. Franklin in Raleigh, where he keeps office hours at Duke’s John Hope Franklin Center. It was April 16, and Barack Obama was rolling through North Carolina that week, the state where the student sit-in movement began three years before Obama’s birth. I was especially wondering where Dr. Franklin placed Obama in African-American history.

Dr. Franklin is dark-skinned, tall and angular, with the strong handshake of a man deeply grounded. He is very present, but his presence also invokes the presence of an ancestor, the kind of father Barack Obama searches for in his 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father. Dr. Franklin is living history himself as well as the author of such classics as From Slavery to Freedom: The History of the African-American People. This is a man who volunteered to fight in World War II, but was rejected for military service on grounds of race, a man who became a PhD while having to personally integrate segregated libraries, a defender of W.E.B. Dubois during McCarthyism, a key social researcher behind Brown v. Board of Education, the first black chairman of a major history department (Brooklyn College, 1956), and a man who lived the bitter decades even before the Rev. Jeremiah Wright came along. His wife, Aurelia, died in 1999 after fifty-nine years of marriage. Dr. Franklin walks with a cane these days, and the accompaniment of close friends, but is extremely alert, curious and possessed of a mirthful smile. During our dinner, admirers kept approaching our table to wish him well, introduce their families and share stories.

Dr. Franklin had received a call from Barack Obama the day before, he said, but the two had not connected yet. “The person who took the call is a Hillary supporter,” he softly chuckled.

The Clintons were progressive enough to shower many honors on Dr. Franklin, including a presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995, the year that young Barack Obama published his Dreams. Dr. Franklin spent many hours in the White House during the Clinton years, and even today remains the ranking academic charged with molding how history will be embodied in the new African-American Smithsonian museum on the Mall.

Dr. Franklin will announce his support of Barack Obama, as early as Wednesday, despite several personal entreaties from both Clintons to at least remain neutral.

“Don’t know Obama, never met him,” he told me. What was it about Obama that drew Dr. Franklin away from the Clintons? I asked. “I thought he was exceptionally bright and qualified, with more potential for growth in office” than what he’d seen the Clintons achieve in the years he had watched them.

Then, after staring at the table intently, Dr. Franklin said that Obama’s recent speech on racism was “the Sermon on the Mount, the Declaration of Independence, and the Emancipation Proclamation, all combined into one.” Sensing that this was quite a pronouncement, he then he bit off a small portion of meat, saying that he was on a low-salt diet these days. It was as if his evaluation of Obama’s historic place was an everyday statement of fact. We went on to discuss the size of bass in North Carolina creeks.

I missed a front-row opportunity to see Obama’s Raleigh rally that week, though arrived in time to listen from the parking lot. I was late because I was exploring another chapter of the pre-Obama era. Back in 1961, I was in North Carolina at a gathering of early SDS and SNCC activists discussing the strategy of realigning the Democratic Party as a result of direct action and voter registration. The catalyst for that brainstorming was the 1960 Greensboro, North Carolina, sit-in which spread the wildfire of nonviolent direct action across the South. Here I was in 2008, missing Obama in the present because I was visiting the Greensboro lunch counter site where the activism of my generation first began.

Flashbacks briefly began affecting me as I arrived in Greensboro with two friends from Duke, both graduate students and community organizers. Greensboro is an old textile and insurance town with a couple of historically black colleges including Bennett and North Carolina A&T, where the four original sit-in leaders had been enrolled. A railroad track bisects the town of 250,000, which is just under 30 percent black. The look of many buildings and streets has changed little. When we briefly became lost, an old caution about whom to ask for directions came over me. When I glimpsed white pedestrians walking along the street where the sit-ins occurred, the former sense of high-alert briefly returned.

The old Woolworth’s is still there, on the corner of a street renamed February 1, its shell being reconstructed, slowly, as an international civil rights museum. The lunch counter, swivel chairs and serving area haven’t changed since 1960. I sat down where David Richmond, Ezell Blair (now Jibreel Khazan), Franklin McClain and Joseph McNeil–and others–asked politely for cups of coffee so long ago. I inhabited the past, the point from which the tremors went forth, then shared coffee and conversation with local people trying to complete the work of memory. They call themselves The Beloved Community Center of Greensboro.

One of them, Louis Brandon, was a participant in those first sit-ins as a junior studying biology at A&T. Rev. Nelson Johnson and Joyce Johnson direct the development efforts. Henry Fry, a Greensboro native first elected to the state legislature in 1968, later the state’s appointed chief justice, and now back at A&T, seemed to be a living example of progress. But all said their struggle has been a hard one. Fifteen years ago, the Woolworth property was slated to become a parking garage. Two black leaders were able to purchase the structure. Then a 1999 $3 million bond referendum failed by a close margin on racial lines (85 percent of the town’s blacks voted yes, while 75 percent of the white majority were opposed.) Another referendum was attempted and failed. Someone placed a headless skunk on the entrance.

The prospects improved starting in 2001. The unfolding story of 1960 began including the handful of white students who joined the sit-in from a private women’s college, Bennett. (Two of them, exchange students from Mount Holyoke College, were among those arrested.) The state legislature, now reflecting African-American constituencies, eventually provided $2.5 million, and downtown developers and large corporations such as tobacco firms pledged several million more, whether for reparation or profits. As a 2004 New York Times story on such civil rights museums noted, “the lure of tourism money has helped overcome the shame.” The tourism potential of such sites “has shown that the history of the ’50s and 60’s is a valuable commodity.” Meanwhile project costs have risen from an initial $7 million to $18 million, largely due to renovation of the 1929 building.

Had things really changed as much as Barack Obama was suggesting? Surely there were deep shifts since the time of John Hope Franklin? How did they feel about the Woolworth lunch counter being both a legacy and a commodity?

The responses were ambiguous. Louis Brandon quickly asserted, “The town has not changed, and if you want any change you have to protest.” Memories remain bitter over the Klan killings of five activists during a textile workers’ march in 1979. Fry, the former legislator and judge, had learned “there’s more than one way to skin a cat, you need the radicals, some conservatives and people in the middle to get it done.” But he agreed that “everything here is a struggle” because “the people making laws are careful to give so many advantages to the people at the top.”

The power of the textile and insurance interests remains “tenacious,” said Rev. Johnson, though “what is changing is the community encroachment on power.” For a time in the seventies, he said, Greensboro became “the center of the Southern Black Power movement,” with a thriving culture of radicals, nationalists, black Marxists and publications like African World. Community empowerment has grown through difficult strikes by cafeteria workers, rent strikers and textile workers. In the absence of a strong union movement, he noted, the community was the union, meeting at the church every Monday. Two of the original four sit-in students were “anchored,” he thought, by attending the same church. Now “pieces of all these movements are on a cusp of change.”

The conversation over what memory to preserve is at times heated. “The power dynamic is unchanged, but the disguise constantly changes in order to prevent change. This gets told,” he said, pointing to the Woolworth site where we sat, “so that the rest of history of strike and struggle doesn’t get told.” History, he said, ought to be a “servant, an agent, of transformation,” not a servant of the tourism industry. “That’s exactly what Dr. King would not want.”

Does Obama represent the cusp of change for these deeply rooted and savvy community leaders in Greensboro? So far, Obama has not visited the Woolworth’s site, as he did the historic bridge in Selma, Alabama, a few months ago. But the Senator held a town meeting months ago at the Greensboro coliseum, where the audience filled 2,100 seats and spilled outdoors. “The more he talked,” said Fry, grinning, “the better I felt. It was like Shirley Chisholm running for president back in those days. She lifted my spirits. And when I got elected to office in 1968, there was a radical black running for governor who lost, but he got a lot of new voters out. Everything builds on everything else.”

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