Did Black Power Birth Obama?

In tracing the arc of black history and politics, it is easy to draw the link between Dr. King and Barack Obama. But the black power movement deserves equal credit for reshaping the face of American politics.

The question remains, what effect did this complex and misunderstood history—a nuanced mixture of peaceful agitation and in-your-face militancy—have on a young Barack Obama? Obama’s rise, on the backs of a multi-racial and regional voting coalition, might suggest he’s chosen the way of King.

But in Dreams From My Father, Obama describes feeling ambivalent about the traditional civil rights model. He took one look at the man who offered him his first organizing job, a man wearing “a crisp white shirt, a paisley tie and red suspenders,” in an office where “sunlight streamed down on a bust of Dr. King”—and ran in the opposite direction. “I declined his generous offer,” Obama wrote, “deciding I needed a job closer to the streets.”

Obama’s shrewd political maneuverings in the years that followed beg the question: What streets?  The black power movement seems conspicuously absent in the tactics of Obama and the rest of the new black vanguard. Today’s prominent figures such as D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, Michael Nutter in Philadelphia, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. in Illinois and Gov. Deval Patrick in Massachusetts, provide grist for the idea that with the right message and disciplined campaigning (cue David Axelrod) blacks no longer need to gin up racial solidarity to be elected. And these candidates’ noticeable lack of bombast suggests that even the best accessories of the black power movement may be passé.

Revisiting the black power movement to diminish 40 years of caricature and rightly acknowledge its broad and lasting influence is a meaningful exercise. But however the organizational strategies of the movement have been absorbed into modern politics, the spirit of the black political movement and the American electorate has changed dramatically. In the 2010 election cycle and beyond, the task of black advancement may be better served by reaching out to non-majority-minority districts, running black candidates that do not have to court black-only turnout or wait in line for black incumbents to move on.

Who deserves the credit for the current state of black politics? The answer, of course, is both the civil rights movement and the black power movement. And for whatever outsider status each side held or seemed to embrace, their mutual objective was to get inside the machine, to transform it from within. As King wrote: “Equally imperative is the development of a strong voice that is heard in the smoke-filled rooms where party debating and bargaining proceed.”

Dayo Olopade is Washington reporter for The Root.