Chicago, March 13, 2016 (GMN) - In his 30s and 40s, the Rev. C.T. Vivian rode with the Freedom Riders, organized sit-ins in Nashville and worked closely with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Many years later, before the 2008 election, he traveled the country along with other civil rights leaders exclaiming to voters that a Barack Obama presidency was exactly the kind of prize that they had been fighting for all their lives.
All of that came back to him during a meeting at the White House three weeks ago between President Obama and several of those leaders. Mr. Vivian told the president how proud he was of him, and how sad he was to see him go.
And then he began to cry.
“If there was a way I could keep him there I would keep him there for another term,” Mr. Vivian, 91, said later from his home in Atlanta. “It is difficult for people who are not African-American to understand what it has been to have someone in the White House that you know understands you.”
The 2016 presidential campaign has been mesmerizing the country with its party-crashing personalities, what’s-next intrigue and promise of a tantalizing November.
But a large segment of the country has also been busy gazing upon the presidency that is ending. In interviews, African-Americans around the country said they were counting down the last 10 months of Mr. Obama’s term with pride, with sadness and also with a looming despair.
At dinner tables, Bible studies and classrooms throughout black America, elders, their children and their children’s children have been asking whether the breakthrough they thought they would never see will turn out to be an anomaly that they never see repeated.
“I come from an area where we never thought it was going to be possible,” said Russell Singleton, 64, who grew up on the South Side of Chicago and now tends a shoe shine station in the president’s old barbershop. He recalled as a child seeing a racial slur stenciled onto a sidewalk in bright yellow paint, and as a teenager hurling bricks the night Dr. King was assassinated.
He added, shaking his head, “I don’t think I’ll see another black president in my lifetime and I’ll say in the younger generation’s lifetime.”
“They won’t allow us to have the reins again,” he continued. “It’s a big prize and they hold onto it dearly.”
On the West Side of Chicago, Jakya Hobbs, 13, said matter-of-factly that Mr. Obama’s election was a “miracle,” and not in a good way. “Our system isn’t built for a black person to become president,” she said.
Perhaps no one expressed the feeling more viscerally than the young black girl who was captured by her grandmother on video wailing hysterically when she learned that Mr. Obama was soon leaving the White House. The video went viral on Facebook, and after Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to the president, showed it to him, he told the girl’s grandmother in a Facebook post to “dry her tears, because I’m not going anywhere.”
“I’ll still be a citizen just like her,” he added in a response that might not have pacified the girl.
Ms. Jarrett said Mr. Obama “is aware of the fact that it is natural for people to have this feeling of sadness.”
“What he has been trying to do is to reassure people that although he won’t be the president, he is still absolutely committed to moving that arch of the moral universe as a citizen.”
But the feeling of loss was not just attached to Mr. Obama himself. What had given them hope, many said in interviews, was an achievement that could never be erased even as it slips into history: that a black person can become president.
Mr. Vivian said that after Mr. Obama’s election, a woman who had been teaching for more than two decades in Atlanta told him that her black students had started saying, for the first time, that they wanted to be president.
“That was the first time that any class had been able to think about that, that they could be president of the United States,” Mr. Vivian said.
What’s more, said Lawrence Ware, a lecturer and the diversity coordinator of the philosophy department at Oklahoma State University, is that “black families are losing a first family that is a model of a working relationship.”
“These are things that combat the vicious legacy of white supremacy that communicates to African-Americans that you are not beautiful, that you are not intelligent, that you cannot achieve, that your relationships are pathologically doomed for failure,” Mr. Ware, 34, said. “That symbolism is absolutely powerful and needed.”
But if seven years under President Obama has opened possibilities for black Americans, many of those interviewed were torn about his lasting impact on race relations.
They were, on one hand, hard-pressed to imagine a white president saying “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” inviting the Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. and the white police officer who had confronted him to a White House “beer summit,” or singing “Amazing Grace” at the funeral of the pastor who was one of the nine black churchgoers gunned down in Charleston, S.C., last year.
“We are losing a soldier who has actually been through the things that individuals are going through,” said Jakya’s father, Jevon Hobbs, 42. “None of the current candidates,” he said, “know what it’s like to be accosted by the police for no reason.”
On the other hand, they said they did not believe a white president would have heard “You lie!” shouted at him from the floor of Congress; or would have had his birth certificate challenged and then seen a man who challenged it become the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.
Through this filter, many ascribed Washington partisanship to darker motives. Republicans’ repeated attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and refusal to entertain a Supreme Court nominee were, many of those interviewed had no doubt, a result of the president’s ethnicity.
“They don’t want a black president,” said Willie Mae Burrell, 90, who attended segregated schools as a child and once worked as a cook on the same Havana, Ala., farm where her mother picked cotton. “That’s the reason he couldn’t get things done.”
There was some disappointment with President Obama, too, that he had not done enough to relieve the burdens of life in black America, like poverty and high incarceration rates. Ms. Jarrett, his adviser, said the uninsured rate of African-Americans had dropped 50 percent under the new health care law, that incarceration rates had fallen and graduation rates had risen.
“By objective metrics, the African-American community has made progress during the president’s time in office,” Ms. Jarrett said. “Now, is there still work left to do? Absolutely. And, the president would be the first to say that he didn’t expect to be able to accomplish everything he wanted to accomplish in just eight years.”
Mostly, though, there were questions about whether another black person could be elected president anytime soon.
Asked who could be the next, a few mentioned Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala D. Harris, California’s attorney general, who is running for a seat in the Senate, but most had no ready answer.
There are signs, though, that the odds of another black president are not insurmountable. A Gallup poll last year found that more than nine in 10 Americans said they would have no problem voting for a black president, about the same as could see themselves voting for a Catholic, woman, Hispanic or Jewish candidate.
Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon, was briefly a leading contender for the Republican nomination, though many blacks shrugged at his candidacy because of his conservative stances and criticism of Mr. Obama.
And the president himself has shown that a black candidate has access to the key to modern campaigning, big money. Mr. Obama and the Democratic National Committee together raised about a billion dollars in 2012.
“Nobody can predict the future,” said Antonio Coye, 44, the manager of the Hyde Park Hair Salon, the president’s old barbershop. “We can definitely get in there again.”
What is certain, in any event, is that next Jan. 20, the book will close on a significant chapter in American history.
“I had a vision the other night,” said Mary Hooks, the co-director of Southerners On New Ground, a gay and transgender rights group in Atlanta. “What if a bunch of black people mobilized to D.C. on his last day and just stood out there and gave him a standing ovation and clapped?”
“We don’t want to give the impression that he’s been so excellent and amazing,” she said, “but we also want to honor what this has meant for all our people and what it has meant for our ancestors.” (The New York Times)