This essay is adapted from Thomas J. Sugrue’s Not Even Past: Barack Obama and the Burden of Race, out in June from Princeton University Press. Copyright © 2010 by Princeton University Press. Printed by permission.

"Rosa sat so Martin could walk/Martin walked so Obama could run/Obama is running so our children can fly!" Circulated widely during the last weeks of the 2008 presidential election, this short piece of verse encapsulates the relationship of Barack Obama to collective memories of the civil rights movement. It is a story of debt: Obama owes his success to the past generation of civil rights protesters. It is a story of redemption: Obama’s political career realizes their dream that skin color be no longer a bar to ambition. And it is a story of hope and promise: Obama’s victory will open up extraordinary opportunities to the next generation. The poem is powerful because it unself-consciously provides Obama with a political genealogy in the most important social movement of the twentieth century and offers a teleological view of America on an inexorable path of progress.

Obama himself emphasized his place in the unfolding history of civil rights at key moments during his long presidential campaign, most notably in one of the more extraordinary speeches of his career, in Selma, Alabama, on March 4, 2007, before a mostly black audience at an event commemorating the city’s voting rights march of 1965. Joining Obama were Congressman John Lewis; C.T. Vivian, a minister and close aide to the Reverend King; and Artur Davis, a young, black Harvard Law graduate and a Democratic rising star who hoped to be one of the first African-Americans elected to statewide office in Alabama since Reconstruction.

It was one of Obama’s most moving speeches, a virtuosic performance, delivered in the sonorous tones of someone who had learned the art of rhetoric from the pulpit of the black church. Obama seemed to be channeling King himself in his cadence, his mix of exhortation and analysis and his easy use of biblical imagery. The speech culminated in an extended allusion to the book of Exodus. "So I just want to talk a little about Moses and Aaron and Joshua, because we are in the presence today of a lot of Moseses. We’re in the presence today of giants whose shoulders we stand on, people who battled, not just on behalf of African-Americans but on behalf of all of America; that battled for America’s soul, that shed blood…. Like Moses, they challenged Pharaoh, the princes, powers who said that some are atop and others are at the bottom, and that’s how it’s always going to
be." He traced his own lineage to their struggle. "It is because they marched that I got the kind of education I got, a law degree, a seat in the Illinois Senate and ultimately in the United States Senate." Ultimately the story was one of liberation from bondage. "The previous generation, the Moses Generation, pointed the way. They took us 90 percent of the way there. We still got that 10 percent in order to cross over to the other side." Obama simultaneously paid respect to the elders of the civil rights struggle, situated his career as their legacy and offered a story of redemption. For those Americans—especially white Americans—who believed that the struggle for racial equality was nearly finished, these words were a balm.

If the struggle was 90 percent complete, what remained to be done? Raising his voice, Obama exhorted the "Joshua Generation" to remember the freedom struggle of the 1960s, to exhibit "the sense of moral clarity and purpose" of those who came before them and, in a riff familiar to black churchgoers but surprising to most white commentators, called for parental responsibility, criticizing "daddies not acting like daddies" and exhorting a fictional, feckless "cousin Pookie" to "get off the couch and register some folks and go to the polls." At the core of the speech was Obama’s vision of the civil rights struggle as one of individual initiative and self-transformation. "If you want to change the world," Obama solemnly intoned, "the change has to happen with you first, and that is something that the greatest and most honorable of generations has taught us." He reinforced the profoundly individualistic understanding of the freedom struggle and its challenge to hearts and minds.

The metaphor of Moses and Joshua, the freedom fighter and the nation builder, offered a powerful framework for Obama’s campaign, one that rooted the rootless Hawaiian in the history of the Southern freedom struggle, but with the past as a prologue to a more glorious future. It was Obama’s shorthand explanation of the long sweep of black politics from the legislative gains of the mid-1960s to the early twenty-first century. Obama positioned himself as the heir to King and the civil rights movement, but also as part of a vanguard of black politicians who jettisoned a now untimely and divisive sense of racial grievance and embraced mainstream, "middle-class" values (which many commentators interpreted as "white"), rather than appealing to race consciousness. Moses led the Chosen People from the bondage of racial oppression; Joshua would lead them into a multiracial Canaan, where Egyptian and Jew, white and black, pharaohs and prophets would live side by side. Obama signaled the major theme of his campaign: nation building through the restoration of a common national purpose that Americans could achieve by transcending the old divisions of race, ethnicity, religion and party. And Obama provided a wide range of commentators with a compelling, but ultimately problematic, framework for discussing the past fifty years of racial politics, one that emphasizes discontinuity, generational division and novelty, suggesting that the United States has decisively entered a "post–civil rights era."

The Moses/Joshua metaphor, for all of its power, does not do justice to Obama’s relationship to America’s long, unfinished struggle for racial equality. The relation between Obama and civil rights history is at once more powerful and more oblique than the conventional narrative would lead us to believe. To understand Obama’s place in modern American history requires going beyond King and Parks, Moses and Joshua, to the real Obama and to the relationship of history, memory, biography and national politics. To understand Obama’s relationship to America’s racial past—and to make sense of how he places himself in it, including what he left in and what he edited out—requires situating him in the context of the contested cultural, intellectual and political milieu of the period from the 1960s to the present. The history of civil rights in modern America is one of remembering and forgetting, of inclusion and exclusion.

Barack Obama was, by his own telling, an unlikely Joshua. Born in Hawaii in 1961, he was both too young and too distant from the heart of the black freedom struggle to have direct memories of it. Hawaii occupied a distinctive place in America’s racial history: it was a polyglot, polychromatic part of the far-flung American empire, a place with a troubled history of conquest and unfree labor. By World War II, the island territory had become "the first strange place," where the very mixing of Asians, Americans of European descent, native islanders and African-Americans was so transgressive that the military feared its becoming a seedbed of "mongrelization." It is no surprise that Barack Obama Sr., a Kenyan national, and Stanley Ann Dunham, a Kansan of European descent, whose courtship and marriage would have been illegal in many states and offensive in most, found Hawaii a propitious place to begin their short-lived interracial relationship in 1959.

If Obama was, in part, the product of a hybrid racial culture in Hawaii, he also came of age in the 1970s, at a moment when notions of race, ethnicity and national identity were in profound flux throughout the United States. It was the beginning of America’s age of multiculturalism, when young blacks looked back to a mythical pan-African past and "white ethnics" began celebrating their origins after generations of being uprooted from their ancestral homes and being encouraged to jettison their foreign ways. What had been stigmatized—whether skin color or ethnic heritage—became a source of self-esteem. In one of the most influential journeys of self-discovery in the ’70s, Alex Haley took readers and television viewers in search of his own, mostly fictional African "roots." Haley’s lesson, that to know your history was to know your authentic self, reflected an increasingly influential current in mainstream American education and culture in the 1970s.

As a high school student at Honolulu’s Punahou School, Obama embarked on his own quest for authenticity. Even if he was still uncertain and uncomfortable about his African roots, he did not embrace his European-American heritage. Instead, he gravitated toward blackness, growing his hair into an Afro, emulating black basketball stars and seeking out the company of self-identified black Hawaiians. His search for self-understanding drew him inexorably toward the continental United States, to African America and to Harlem, the souls of black folks, and the civil rights and black power movements that played out a world away from his childhood homes.


Obama’s adolescent search for his roots led him first to the canonical works of Richard Wright, James Baldwin, W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes. But their accounts of black life did not speak to Obama’s already irrepressible optimism or his experience in Hawaii. "In every page of every book," Obama wrote in his 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father, "in Bigger Thomas and invisible men, I kept finding the same anguish, the same doubt; a self-contempt that neither irony nor intellect seemed able to deflect." He found them "exhausted, bitter men, the devil at their heels." But Obama had an epiphany when he read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written with Alex Haley. As Obama recalled, Malcolm’s "repeated acts of self-creation spoke to me." It was telling that a young man who had spent his childhood inhabiting an in-between world of race and ethnicity found himself alienated from those writers who struggled with what Du Bois memorably called their "two-ness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder." Instead, Obama gravitated toward a mixed-race man—Malcolm was nicknamed Detroit Red because of his skin and hair color—who rejected his white roots, banished the thought of twoness and had become an icon of assertive black masculinity and racial pride.

Obama’s dalliance with Malcolm sparked his interest in black radicalism. In high school he befriended Frank Marshall Davis, a longtime black radical who had followed a common trajectory from the interracial leftism of the postwar years to a more militant race-conscious politics. A poet, journalist and sometime labor organizer, Davis had an unkempt, graying Afro, his own expression of blackness. Obama was something of a Davis protégé: the two spent hours together drinking and discussing black life and politics. In one memorable conversation, Davis told Obama that "black people have a reason to hate. That’s just the way it is." Davis’s sentiments put him in the company of those black militants who eschewed nonviolence and attempted to channel black pride and racial anger into oppositional politics. But there was not much of a black power movement left by the time Obama was in high school, and even less of one when he attended college. Black power had never been as powerful or popular as its adherents and the news media had asserted, and by the late 1970s many of its most vocal proponents had burned out, hardened by sectarian struggle and embittered by police harassment.

Even if black power was institutionally weak, it lived on in a mix of racial pride and grievance and a celebration of resistance and African culture, exemplified in the late-night "bull sessions" that Obama joined with fellow black students at Occidental College in California from 1979 to 1981 and, even more, on the streets and in the shops of Harlem, which he got to know intimately over the next fours years, first as a student at Columbia University and then as a New York City resident. He spent long days "walking from one end of Manhattan to the other," visiting Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church and shooting hoops at neighborhood basketball courts. New York in the early ’80s was America’s most heterogeneous city, a place marked by its own peculiar history of racial resentments; it was home to the country’s largest concentration of black nationalists, querulous and splintered over arcane debates from the late 1960s, and who found common cause only in their belief in the irreducible racism of white America and their outrage against police repression.

If Obama flirted with black nationalism, his time as a community organizer in Chicago in the mid-1980s introduced him to another current of the long black freedom struggle, one every bit as militant as black nationalism and built on a black community consciousness, even as its practitioners eschewed the goal of racial separatism. "What really inspired me," Obama recalled in a 2007 interview about his early career, "was the civil rights movement. And if you asked me who my role model was at that time, it would probably be Bob Moses, the famous SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] organizer…. Those were the folks I was really inspired by—the John Lewises, the Bob Moseses, the Fannie Lou Hamers, the Ella Bakers." Obama’s choice of these activists—along with his use of the past tense—offers a revealing glimpse into his racial politics and how they shifted over time.

The four were among the most militant in the nonviolent freedom movement—none of them were consensus builders. Baker and Moses, in particular, provided interesting analogies for Obama. Both launched their careers in the North. Baker was a left-leaning activist in Harlem in the 1930s, swept into the Popular Front alliance of civil rights activists and Communists. Moses, a native New Yorker and schoolteacher, led SNCC’s mostly off-camera organizing efforts in the Mississippi Delta. Both—like Obama, working on Chicago’s South Side—viewed community organizing as a discipline, not simply as a tactic (even if they came from different, but related, organizing traditions). Both Baker and Moses were among the most revered activists of their generations. But unlike Obama, who quickly learned the power of his own personal narrative and wove it into his speeches, his writing and his interviews, both were intensely private, preferring to remain in the background, doing the hard, everyday work of organizing but seldom serving as spokesmen for the movement and leaving their personal lives hidden from even their closest associates. Obama was an activist-politician whose sensibilities and style emerged in the confessional culture of the post-1960s era; Baker and Moses, by contrast, exhibited a reticence born of the notion that, ultimately, their personal stories did not matter.

In the 1960s, Moses, Baker, Hamer and Lewis had combined elements of the prophetic and the disruptive in their work. Each was committed to the power of the ballot box, though only Lewis and Hamer aspired to political office. But grassroots organizing and protest did not provide skills that translated easily into the art of electoral politics and lawmaking. Hamer quixotically ran for Congress but faced insuperable obstacles to her election in the barely post–Voting Rights Act South. And by the late 1960s, she had joined the welfare rights movement, advocating for the expansion of citizenship rights for impoverished women and calling for a destigmatization of welfare. She was ultimately more prophet than politician. Neither Moses nor Baker, like most grassroots activists, aspired to electoral politics and continued their work behind the scenes. Lewis, by contrast, ultimately ran a successful campaign for Congress from an overwhelmingly black Congressional district in Georgia, using his position less to legislate than to serve as a voice of conscience and a national advocate for racial equality.

By the time Obama moved to the Windy City in the summer of 1985, he was both a voracious reader of civil rights and black history and a keen observer of black social movements, and had arrived at a sophisticated understanding of the syncretism that defined black politics. In an essay from 1988, Obama argued that "from W.E.B. Du Bois to Booker T. Washington to Marcus Garvey to Malcolm X to Martin Luther King, this internal debate has raged between integration and nationalism, between accommodation and militancy, between sit-down strikes and boardroom negotiations. The lines between these strategies have never been simply drawn, and the most successful black leadership has recognized the need to bridge these seemingly divergent approaches." Obama perceived the fundamental pragmatism that animated the long black freedom struggle: few activists were ideologically pure. They debated, revised and reformulated their political positions, rejecting strategies that did not seem to be working, experimenting with new ones and forging alliances that, to many outside observers who expected ideological consistency, seemed unlikely. Civil rights and black power were fundamentally intertwined in ways that most commentators—trapped in a binary framework that pitted the two against each other as irreconcilable—could not grasp.

Obama’s description of the synergies between integration and nationalism, between Martin and Malcolm, was an apt description of black politics in the post-’60s years. Over Obama’s lifetime, the color of American politics had changed dramatically. In 1965 only 193 blacks held elected office nationwide; just twenty years later, when Obama began working as a community activist and political organizer in Chicago, that figure had risen to 6,016. But black politics defied simple characterization. Some politicians were the heirs of black power, particularly those with safe seats in overwhelmingly black districts, who did not depend on white electoral support and who could use explicit race-based appeals to rouse their supporters. They had incentives to adopt a politics of race pride and consciousness. In the handful of majority-black cities (notably Newark, Gary, Washington and Detroit), black candidates often donned dashikis, engaged in theatrical denunciations of whites and described their candidacies in terms of black power, even though many real black power advocates lacked the patience, the political skills and the willingness to be "co-opted" by the two mainstream parties necessary to win elected office. Conversely, many ostensible militants made their peace with white business leaders and civic elites.


But black militancy was only one thread of post-’60s black politics, even if, because of its rhetoric, its proponents dominated the airwaves. From the 1960s onward, many of the most influential and effective black politicians were—by disposition and necessity—coalition builders. Mostly forgotten in political accounts of the civil rights era was Edward Brooke, a black Massachusetts Republican, who won election to the US Senate in 1966, at a moment of extraordinary racial tension in a 97 percent white state. That summer, Stokely Carmichael uttered the famous words "black power"; welfare rights activists demonstrated at the Massachusetts Statehouse; and antibusing activists Pixie Palladino and Louise Day Hicks won widespread support in Boston’s Irish and Italian neighborhoods. Yet Brooke distanced himself from Massachusetts’s racially polarized politics; most notably, he distanced himself from Carmichael and convinced suburban and small-town whites that he was a good-government, fiscally responsible candidate. As a result, he won by a comfortable margin, picking up many Democratic voters, even if he lost big among Boston’s bitter blue-collar whites, whose votes he did not need because of the breadth of his coalition. As a Republican, Brooke was an outlier among black politicians, but many of them shared his challenge: how to win office in majority-white jurisdictions.

In the three decades after Brooke’s election, sixty-seven cities with populations over 50,000 elected black mayors, nearly all of them members of the Democratic Party. Most of those cities were majority white. Many black leaders—even those with origins in the controversial community control and black power movements of the 1960s—forged coalitions across racial lines, although an admixture of racism and antiliberalism kept most of them from winning a white majority. In 1973 Tom Bradley won election as mayor of Los Angeles, a city with a relatively small black population (only 17.7 percent of the city’s inhabitants) and still struggling with the divisive legacy of the 1965 Watts riot. In 1983 Wilson Goode, who had started his career as a community organizer with funds from the War on Poverty, was elected mayor of Philadelphia, a majority-white city, with the support of almost a quarter of white voters. Blacks won elected office, with white support, in many other majority-white cities, among them New Haven and Denver.

Black electoral gains (outside the majority-minority districts created after the Voting Rights Act of 1965) were slower to come in the South, but there, too, black politicians who aspired to statewide office forged successful interracial electoral coalitions. In 1983 voters in Charlotte, North Carolina, a majority-white city and bastion of the New New South, a place with its own deep divisions over civil rights and school desegregation, put moderate black businessman Harvey Gantt into the mayor’s office. In an intensely polarized race for the US Senate in 1990, Gantt barely lost to incumbent Republican Jesse Helms, who rallied his supporters by playing to fears of racial quotas and white job loss. Virginia, once capital of the Confederacy, elected a black Democratic governor, Douglas Wilder, in 1989. Both of these candidates shifted to the right of their black constituents, positioning themselves as probusiness and socially moderate, assuming correctly that they would lose little black support while gaining white support. Wilder crossed the racial divide, and Gantt nearly did, both in states with long histories of racial animosity.

 On the national level, too, the gap between Moses and Joshua was blurry. African-American women, many of them coalition builders, played a decisive role in reconfiguring liberal politics. Shirley Chisholm, elected to Congress from Brooklyn in 1968, became the first African-American Democratic candidate for president. In 1976 Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan delivered a celebrated keynote address nominating Jimmy Carter (whose centrist presidential candidacy, it should be noted, was ardently supported by alleged race-baiters, such as Coleman Young). Chisholm and Jordan did not get very far nationally, not because they were politicians steeped in the race-conscious identity politics of the civil rights years but because the majority of white voters were unwilling to cross the racial and gender divide.

No one better embodied the syncretic nature of black electoral politics than Harold Washington, a candidate who came up through the Chicago machine but then broke from it to run as a reform candidate and get elected as the city’s first black mayor in 1983, less than two years before Obama started his Chicago organizing career. Washington fashioned a dual strategy for victory: he appealed to the racial pride and grievances of his black constituents while reaching out to an interracial constituency. He came to office amid a black urban backlash against the Reagan administration, whose economic policies had worsened inner-city economies, whose "New Federalism" led to a steady reduction in urban spending and whose challenges to affirmative action and welfare reinforced racial stereotypes. Washington swept to victory in large part because of the huge turnout among his African-American base—after a massive voter registration campaign, 85 percent of Chicago’s eligible black voters cast their ballots.

But Washington was not just the "black candidate" or the "black mayor," even if, in racially polarized Chicago, black voters overwhelmingly supported him and the vast majority of white voters opposed his candidacy vehemently. More than 80 percent of Chicago’s whites—who were preponderantly Democrats—broke party ranks and supported Republican Bernard Epton, bringing him within thousands of votes of victory in 1983. But Washington drew support from Chicago’s rapidly growing Latino population and from white liberals who provided him with campaign funds and enough votes to put him over the top.

As mayor, Washington rewarded his supporters, especially African-Americans, with positions in his administration, even though Chicago’s infamous "council wars," led by powerful, race-baiting alderman "Fast Eddie" Vrdolyak, held up many mayoral appointments. But at the same time Washington surrounded himself with an interracial team of advisers, including two figures who would later be members of Obama’s inner circle: David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett. Washington also made peace with leading white politicians (endorsing Richard M. Daley, his onetime opponent and son of the longtime machine leader, and Aurelia Pucinski, daughter of powerful Congressman and white ethnic spokesman Roman Pucinski, in their bids for Cook County offices). And he worked to overcome the suspicion of Chicago’s business elite by cutting the city’s payroll, reducing the city’s debt and restoring its favorable credit rating. As a consequence, Chicago’s black nationalists—many of whom had enthusiastically supported his candidacy—charged him with "accommodationism." Washington’s ability to build coalitions while simultaneously appealing to his black base was the key to his victory, just as it would be for Obama a quarter-century later.

The political potency of black consciousness left a deep impression on Obama. He observed that Chicago’s blacks talked about the mayor "with a familiarity and affection normally reserved for a relative." It was Harold, not Mayor Washington (just as it had been Martin, Malcolm, Huey and Jesse—and, twenty years later, in barbershops, churches and the black blogosphere, it would be Barack). Black loyalty to Washington was, in part, a matter of group pride, but also a matter of self-interest. Political power brought real economic benefits to urban blacks. By the 1960s, the public sector had become an important avenue of upward mobility for black workers, even if they had been confined mostly to unskilled, bottom-of-the-rung jobs like sanitation work. In many cities, including Chicago, municipal jobs were unionized and secure, with generous health and pension benefits, and they provided a compelling alternative to rapidly disappearing manufacturing work. But black workers were not satisfied with entry-level, manual labor. Empowered by the civil rights movement—and its call for jobs, dignity and freedom—they demanded inclusion in better-paying, mostly white firefighting, police, teaching and clerical jobs. And black businesses demanded access to lucrative city contracts. Like other black mayors, Washington hired more black workers, expanded affirmative action programs and extended more contracts to minority-owned firms, in the process undoing years of machine neglect.

For all of his affinities to Washington, Obama expressed ambivalence about one of Chicago’s most visible black politicians. Writing shortly after Washington’s untimely death in 1987, just months into his second term in office, Obama hailed Washington’s willingness to stand up to Chicago’s machine leaders. But rather than understanding Washington as a coalition builder, he portrayed him as the embodiment of race-conscious politics, noting "the surge of political empowerment around the country" that had fired up black voters. But for Obama, the "only principle that came through" during Washington’s administration was "getting our fair share," namely, efforts to use the power of the mayoralty for black group advancement, and that did not suffice. Obama was skeptical that black political power, like Washington’s mayoralty, would have anything more than "an important symbolic effect." What Obama left out was perhaps the most important part of Washington’s relatively progressive policy: his efforts to channel community development block grants to neighborhood groups, to shift development dollars toward the construction of affordable housing and to increase capital spending to improve the city’s poor and working-class neighborhoods. Each of these initiatives met with significant resistance, from developers and planners who favored large-scale downtown redevelopment and from Washington’s opponents among the aldermen. Overall, Obama echoed analysts who viewed the black ascent to urban power as a "hollow prize," the dubious triumph of taking over local governments just as jobs were disappearing, population steadily declining and tax revenue plummeting. City jobs for black Chicagoans were not enough to stem the effects of decades of disinvestment. Pinstripe patronage for black entrepreneurs would not benefit the poor. And the problems facing urban residents were larger than any single elected official could solve.


If the distinctions between civil rights and black power—between Martin and Malcolm—were always blurry in practice, by the mid-1980s journalists and academics drew bright lines between them, and often polemically, as a Manichaean struggle between a civic universalism, on one hand, and a narrow particularism, on the other. A growing cadre of white liberals called for a restoration of the New Deal order, longing for a past when a shared class consciousness had supplanted a divisive ethno-racial politics. And others called for a resuscitation of a common American creed of equality and opportunity, and a rejection of race consciousness and multiculturalism. Writing in the age of Reagan, they lamented the waning of social democracy—but they turned inward, blaming race-conscious leftists even more than conservatives for the "unraveling" of liberalism. In the late 1980s, their sense of crisis was heightened by highly publicized racial conflicts, especially in New York City. They focused their attention on racially divisive street protests led by angry rhetoricians, usually men without large organizational bases but with considerable talent, most prominently the Rev. Al Sharpton (who had burst onto the national scene in 1987 as the champion of Tawana Brawley, an African-American teenager whose fabricated story of a violent rape and cover-up conspiracy dominated headlines).

At the same time, an influential group of academics and journalists turned their often formidable talents to retelling the history of civil rights, especially in the North, usually from the vantage point of aggrieved working- and middle-class whites. Accounts of the Boston busing crisis and racial strife in Brooklyn, two of the bloodiest battlegrounds in the Northern freedom struggle, offered sympathetic portrayals of urban ethnics who viewed affirmative action as a zero-sum game, resented school desegregation as the meddling of "limousine liberals" and were bitter at civil rights leaders’ representations of their politics as incorrigibly racist. In these narratives, white working-class and lower-middle-class Northerners, only a minority of whom ever supported the black freedom struggle, even at its peak in the mid-’60s, were recast as well-meaning, incipient racial liberals who would have joined an interracial coalition had they not been alienated by the "excesses" of the civil rights movement and black power.

Parallel controversies about race and identity roiled universities in the late 1980s and early 1990s. A vocal interracial group of leftists, mostly based in humanities departments and law schools, embraced the politics of diversity and difference. Their opponents, a mix of embattled campus conservatives, disaffected liberals and public intellectuals, rose up to defend the university against them. The most heated battles in the campus culture wars were fought over race and representation: namely, the merits of affirmative action in higher education and the inclusion of minorities and women in the curriculum. Should difference and race consciousness be cultivated in the classroom, or should the mission of higher education be colorblind and universalistic?

Harvard Law School in the late 1980s was an especially contentious place—the Eastern Front of the culture wars. In 1988, the semester before Obama started classes, the Harvard campus was bitterly divided over accusations that history professor Stephan Thernstrom was racially insensitive. Students in a course that he taught on race and ethnicity accused him of silencing the voices of blacks by assigning proslavery tracts but not slave narratives, and they charged him with using his lectures to promote conservative views on affirmative action, the black family and urban poverty. Thernstrom countered that his critics practiced latter-day McCarthyism, silencing their academic adversaries and imposing a stifling leftist ideological conformity in the classroom.

During Obama’s second year at Harvard the law school exploded in racial controversy. When the law faculty did not make a job offer to visiting faculty member Regina Austin, an African-American professor from the University of Pennsylvania, the Coalition for Civil Rights accused the law school dean of racism, railed against the fact that the law school had no tenured black women and only a handful of nonwhite faculty members, and led a series of teach-ins and protests, including a sit-in at the dean’s office, to demand the diversification of the law school. Derrick Bell, the law school’s first tenured black faculty member, took a "leave of conscience" in protest (and later resigned his post). Members of Harvard’s chapter of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group, criticized affirmative action and contended that any policies to mandate diversity in Harvard’s student body and faculty would sacrifice quality by undermining the principle of meritocracy. Both sides wrapped themselves in the mantle of the civil rights movement. The black students claimed that their protest was in the tradition of the black freedom struggle—indeed, at one rally, Obama compared Derrick Bell to Rosa Parks. And conservative students countered that they were being faithful to King’s vision of a colorblind society, and that Austin’s supporters were practitioners of a divisive identity politics rooted in black power.

Despite his sympathies with Austin and Bell, Obama positioned himself as someone who could reconcile Harvard’s bitter differences by bringing a tone of civility to the debate. He refused to denounce his critics and hurl polemics. In the words of Bradford Berenson, a conservative student who would later work in the second Bush administration, "Even though he was clearly a liberal, he didn’t appear to the conservatives in the [Harvard Law] Review to be taking sides in the tribal warfare." Obama’s position in the middle allowed him to build a winning coalition of liberals and conservatives in his bid to be elected president of the Review in February 1990. Later that year, in a dispute about the Review‘s affirmative action policy, Obama again attempted to reconcile the opposing camps. He defended the principle of affirmative action while suggesting that he respected the "depth" and "sincerity" of its opponents’ beliefs. Racial preferences, he contended, would "enhance the representativeness" of the Review‘s staff, but not "at the price of any ‘lower standard’ of editorial excellence." Obama’s intervention did not lead to anything more than a momentary cease-fire in Harvard’s culture wars. The law school continued to be intensely polarized. Still, it was a defining moment in his racial education.

Obama’s experience at Harvard tempered his sympathy for the race-conscious politics of the black freedom struggle. His emphasis on reconciliation over confrontation dovetailed with his ongoing search for an identity—a defining story, a way to make sense of American history and his place in it. That journey inevitably led him back in time to the Jim Crow South—a place whose indignities and struggles he had not experienced. Obama found himself drawn to "a series of images, romantic images, of a past I had never known." His search for authenticity and purpose led him to "the sit-ins, the marches, the jailhouse songs" of the Southern struggle for civil rights. There, on the streets of Birmingham, in the pews of Atlanta, in the jails of Mississippi, Obama found himself, his community and his calling. "This is my story," Obama excitedly told a friend in the late 1980s, after reading Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954–63, the Pulitzer Prize–winning first volume of his epic biography of Martin Luther King Jr.

As Obama moved onto the political stage, he distanced himself from the black politicians who had paved his way by offering a generational critique, reiterating the conventional wisdom that "black politics is still shaped by the ’60s and black power." He aligned himself instead with the Southern freedom struggle, whose history, once divisive, had become domesticated, transformed into a narrative of national redemption. Obama launched his 2003 campaign for the Senate with a speech punctuated by the refrain: "What would Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. say?" Obama downplayed King’s scathing critique of moderation, his call to an all-out battle against materialism and privilege and his demand for a "revolution of values." Instead, he portrayed King as the soft-spoken prophet of fairness, hope, opportunity and ill-defined change.

Obama read widely in civil rights history, taught antidiscrimination law at the University of Chicago Law School and steeped himself in the historical and scholarly literature on race, poverty and inequality. But none of that history was particularly useful for an ambitious politician. Situating himself in a current of civil rights history that emphasized its radical strains would be political suicide. But there was something deeper than simple political instrumentality at work. During his journey through the polarized racial world of late-twentieth-century America, Obama discovered his calling. It was to overcome the acrimonious history of racial polarization, whether it be black power or the culture wars—to act on the understanding that such polarization was anathema to national unity.

For Obama, as for all political leaders, history provides a scaffolding for politics: it is full of inspiration, examples, lessons and analogies. The past can be used—and reinterpreted—for purposes of image creation, political mobilization, coalition building and policy-making. Political actors create a useful past, sifting from it what resonates with their constituents, opinion leaders and the general public, whitewashing those elements that are jarring and unsettling or inconvenient. And Obama did that with King. The history of the civil rights struggle—told through Moses and Joshua and King—was a historical theology, a civic religion, a fundamentally Christian story of suffering, martyrdom and redemption. King had cleansed America from its original sin of slavery, and Obama was his heir. By the time Obama was inaugurated president, he had recast himself as an agent of national unification, one who could finally bring to fruition the few lingering, unmet promises of the civil rights movement. What Obama called "my story" became "our story."