BARAK OBAMA: And it is that promise that 45 years ago today brought Americans from every corner of this land to stand together on a mall in Washington before Lincoln’s Memorial and hear a young preacher from Georgia speak of his dream. [CROWD CHEERS] [END CLIPS] BOB GARFIELD: In becoming the first African-American to win a major party nomination for President of the United States, Barack Obama stands on a tall mountain of civil rights pioneers who came before him. It was particularly appropriate that his acceptance speech fell 45 years to the day after Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream address at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.
Less discussed this past week, however, was the debt to African-American women – Fannie Lou Hamer, Shirley Chisholm, Barbara Jordan and countless others who fought at great risk to make black voices heard in our democracy and who themselves embraced the bully pulpit of the Democratic Convention.
Melissa Harris-Lacewell is Associate Professor of African-American Studies at Princeton University. She says Obama would be wise to acknowledge their place in democratic history, small “d” and large. Melissa, welcome to On the Media. MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Thank you, it’s lovely to be here. BOB GARFIELD: Let's start with Fannie Lou Hamer, a Mississippi sharecropper who risked life and limb registering Southern blacks to vote. MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Fannie Lou Hamer we probably best remember from when she actually addressed the Democratic National Convention’s Credentials Committee. She was at that time leading the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. It was a party that challenged the idea that any delegation coming in from the Democratic Party to the convention from Mississippi could be all white.
Of course, we know the demographics of Mississippi, that it is a profoundly African-American state, and yet they were sending delegations that were all white. And so the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was a group of incredibly courageous men and women led by Fannie Lou Hamer, a woman who was herself born into grinding poverty, the granddaughter of slaves.
And when she spoke to the Credentials Committee, she told the story of having been beaten and injured and abused simply for attempting to register to vote. [CLIP]: FANNIE LOU HAMER: Mr. Chairman and to the Credentials Committee, my name is Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer and I live at 626 East Lafayette Street, Ruleville, Mississippi. If the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings in America? [END CLIP] MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Fannie Lou Hamer dramatized and gave voice and person to the persecution of blacks in the South. And it is shortly thereafter that Lyndon Johnson makes a choice to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965. I do believe that part of that is related to the experiences in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where that party convention was held. BOB GARFIELD: Let's move on to the late Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, who in 1972, when Barack Obama [LAUGHS] was 11 - MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: [LAUGHS] BOB GARFIELD: - was a candidate, albeit a hopeless one, for the Democratic presidential nomination. MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, you know, this is not as though Shirley Chisholm is the Hillary Clinton of this convention. It’s not as though she got close, and it’s not as though there was some concession on her part.
Instead, what there was was simply her marking her own place in history, making a claim towards herself as an un-bought and un-bossed woman. [CLIP] SHIRLEY CHISHOLM: I stand before you today as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the presidency of the United States. I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women’s movement of this country, although I am a woman, and I'm equally proud of that.
I stand before you today to repudiate the ridiculous notion that the American people will not vote for a qualified candidate simply because he is not white or because she is not a male. [END CLIP] MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: She was a congressman from New York’s 12th District. She served seven years there, and ran in 1972 in the first presidential election after we gave the right to vote to 18- to 21-year-olds. So she is also linked to the question of the youth vote, new voters coming into the electorate and saying, if we're going to have new voters, maybe we could have a new sort of candidate. BOB GARFIELD: Barack Obama burst onto the national scene four years ago with his keynote address at the convention, but he wasn't the first African-American politician to do that. Twenty-eight years earlier, in 1976, there was Barbara Jordan, who was also a phenomenal orator and she also held audiences in her thrall. Tell me about that moment. MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Barbara Jordan, who was the first African-American woman sent to the U.S. Congress from the state of Texas, spoke about herself as the fulfillment of an American promise, that for her to be there as a black woman from the South, an elected official with the opportunity to address her party in prime time, was an indication of the progress that the country had made. [CLIP] BARBARA JORDAN: What is different? What is special? I, Barbara Jordan, am a keynote speaker. And I feel – [APPLAUSE] - I feel that, not withstanding the past, that my presence here is one additional bit of evidence that the American dream need not forever be deferred. [END CLIP] BOB GARFIELD: Now, I must ask you, apart from Shirley Chisholm and Barbara Jordan and Fannie Lou Hamer, in Obama’s acceptance speech he did not even mention Martin Luther King - MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: [LAUGHS] BOB GARFIELD: - by name. MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Yeah, he just called him a young preacher. [LAUGHTER] BOB GARFIELD: A young Georgia preacher. What was your take on the indirectness of the question of race, on which the entire election could turn? MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: I do think there’s a problem when you invoke Kennedy by name but not King by name and where you can talk about the historic moment that is Hillary Clinton’s campaign but you don't mention Shirley Chisholm. We've got to have a better historical memory as a country that allows all of the players to be there and all of us to have a place at the kind of table of American history.
You know, we do it when we talk about the military. We point out that it’s not just that our country has good ideas, it’s also that it has young men and women who are willing to sacrifice their lives to protect the security of our country. And every time someone invoked the veterans during this week there were standing ovations, as is correct.
But it’s not just a matter of our ability to protect ourselves against foreign enemies. It was also the ways in which domestically we were enemies to democracy ourselves and that we had warriors here who did that work. And they deserved to be recognized as well. BOB GARFIELD: Melissa, thank you very much. MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Thank you. BOB GARFIELD: Melissa Harris-Lacewell is associate professor of Politics and African-American Studies at Princeton University.