June 5, 2023

From the ‘Mountain Top’ to the White House

How Barack Obama’s ascension to president brought the fight for civil rights full circle  …

How Barack Obama’s ascension to president brought the fight for civil rights full circle

Scott Froehlich
managing editor
One of the greatest achievements of the civil rights era was the bringing together of strong African-American communities and the collective voice used to stand up for their rights.
Every community needs a strong leader, and for former president Barack Obama, the devotion to civil service and an unwavering fight for equality was the catalyst for his political career and the basis of his time as commander in chief.
Starting out as a community organizer in Chicago’s South Side, he brought to light issues that plagued impoverished residents in the area. When he was eventually elevated to the nation’s highest position of power, his mission was to ensure that all Americans experienced the change they battled for.
Arguably one the greatest sources of inspiration for public service was his upbringing and experiences as an African-American youth raised by his white mother and grandparents in Hawaii. Obama never knew his Kenyan father, whom he encountered a few times and died when Obama was 21. Not only did the lack of a father in his life affect him, the absence of a black role-model left an impression on his self-image and awareness of his heritage.
After living in Hawaii and Indonesia as a boy, then moving back to Hawaii at 10 to finish his primary and secondary education, Obama realized how race and class played a role in society, especially as a multiracial young man in predominantly white and Polynesian private schools. Despite the adversity he faced, his time in Hawaii left a lasting impression on him.
“The opportunity that Hawaii offered—to experience a variety of cultures in a climate of mutual respect—became an integral part of my world view, and a basis for the values that I hold most dear.”
After graduating from high school, he began his journey towards public service and political aspirations by attending college from 1979-1991, earning his B.A. from Columbia University and a doctorate degree from Harvard Law School. Two years after graduating from Columbia, he moved to Chicago to embark on his role as community organizer in 1985. Although his first go-round wasn’t quite the success he hoped it would be, the small victories he achieved laid the foundation for his relationship with the city.
During the next two decades, he wore several hats and helped make significant changes in his newly-adopted home, as well as in Illinois. He spent 12 years teaching at the University of Chicago Law School from 1992 to 2004, while serving as a three-time Illinois State Senator from 1997 to 2004. During this period, he successfully launched a voter registration campaign, reformed ethics and health care laws, as well as worked on bipartisan legislation that combated racial profiling.
In a pivotal moment of his political career, he gave the keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. This speech elevated his status in the Democratic Party and introduced him to millions of viewers.
Following his time spent in the Illinois State Senate, Obama was elected to the United States Senate, serving from 2005 to 2008. He was involved with legislation that addressed immigration and border security, government spending transparency and held assignments on committees that tackled issues, including Veterans Affairs and foreign relations. In early February 2007, he officially announced his candidacy for president of the United States, eventually under the campaign slogan of “Change We Can Believe In.”
Then, on Nov. 4, 2008, Americans made an historic change by electing the country’s first African-American president. He not only defied odds by winning in 2008, he passed major legislation that brought the country out of a crippling recession, revived the auto industry and passed the Affordable Care Act that made health insurance more accessible and insured 20 million people as of 2016. Along with many other achievements, Obama’s legacy will always carry the weight that no other president, past, present or future, can match; being the first president to break down the racial barrier that existed for over two centuries.
The significance of the U.S. electing its first African-American president can never be understated and the occasion marked the culmination of what the civil rights movement fought so hard to obtain. For the black community, the ability to freely participate in the political process was one of the major rights denied them for years. Not only did Obama’s presidency open the door for future minority commanders in chief, it undoubtedly paved the way for the election of a female president in the future. Martin Luther King Jr. was the beacon of hope for equality for African Americans, Obama carried the torch and brought hope and change to the modern-day fight.
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