The brightest spotlight Wednesday at the rally commemorating the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington will shine on President Obama. That is as it should be, for nothing better symbolizes the advances of a half-century than the presence of a twice-elected African-American president of the United States. But look just outside that spotlight at two other presidents whose stories also dramatically altered the course of the country's race relations and helped make Obama's triumph possible.
Fellow Democrats Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton will speak just before Obama steps to the spot where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his most famous oration in 1963. Because of age and birthplace, they bring something to the occasion that the much-younger Obama cannot: personal knowledge of Jim Crow, personal memories of state-sanctioned discrimination, and personal experience in battles to fundamentally change the mindset of the American South.
Carter, Clinton, and Obama, born in 1924, 1946, and 1961, respectively, roughly represent three distinct generations in the struggle for racial equality. Ku Klux Klan membership hit its modern peak of 6 million when Carter was a boy. Federal troops massed in Clinton's home state when he was young, mobilized by Washington to protect nine frightened kids trying to attend Little Rock Central High School. Both grew up in a world of "Colored Only" and "White Only" drinking fountains. Both lived in states where blacks were blocked from voting by questions no one could answer. Both had black playmates but had to abide by clear restrictions.
"We hunted, fished, explored, worked, and slept together," wrote Carter in Why Not the Best, his 1976 book. "We ground sugar cane, plowed with mules, pruned watermelons, dug and bedded sweet potatoes, mopped cotton, stacked peanuts, cut stovewood, pumped water, fixed fences, fed chickens, picked velvet beans, and hauled cotton to the gin together.... We also found time to spend the night on the banks of the Choctawhatchee and Kinchafoonee creeks, catching and cooking catfish and eels.... We ran, swam, rode horses, drove wagons, and floated on rafts together."
But, he added, "We never went to the same church or school. Our social life and our church life were strictly separate." He recalled listening to the second Joe Louis-Max Schmeling prize fight in 1938, watching his father's dismay that Louis knocked out his white opponent in the first round. Black neighbors offered no reaction in front of the elder Carter. But when they got inside a house only 100 yards away, jubilation erupted at the triumph of the black fighter.
Both Carter and Clinton grew up at ease with African-Americans. DeWayne Wickham, who wrote the book Bill Clinton and Black America in 2002, told National Journal, "In black churches, there is this rhythm to the music and cadence to the speech. When he showed up there, unlike many white politicians, Clinton sunk deep into his seat while the others sat on the edge of their seats. He was comfortable and hard to move. The others were ready to get out the door at the first opportunity."
During the 1992 campaign, Bill Moyers asked candidate Clinton if there was any issue on which he would never compromise. "Racial justice," Clinton replied. Clinton speechwriter Michael Waldman later wrote, "The one thing everybody knew was that Bill Clinton was at his most eloquent, most persuasive, more morally commanding when it came to race. He had been shaped, growing up, by the civil-rights struggle around him."
Of course, Carter and Clinton cannot know what it is like to grow up as a black man as Obama does, nor have they experienced the prejudice in office that has been directed at Obama. But neither man ever forgot the discrimination he saw.
In contrast, Obama grew up in perhaps the most racially tolerant state, coming to the mainland long after Jim Crow had been vanquished. "He spent most of his formative years in Hawaii and a little bit in Indonesia," said Wickham, a founder of the National Association of Black Journalists and now a USA Today columnist and journalism professor at Morgan State University.
When Obama talks about the racism he has endured, it is of a different degree than what Carter and Clinton observed. "There are very few African-American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me," said the president on July 19, reacting to the Trayvon Martin verdict. "There are very few African-American men who haven't had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me—at least before I was a senator. There are very few African-Americans who haven't had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off."
The personal history reflects the generational differences. But the links with his older predecessors are there. Wickham sees "a linear connection" with the presidents. Carter and Clinton were Southerners who "grew up with an awareness of African-Americans that was fairly unique." In his book, Wickham quoted former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell saying, "We know when white folks are comfortable around us and when they're not." And Carter and Clinton are comfortable.
Wickham noted that Clinton, who was famously called "our first black president" in a 1998 essay by Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, had memorized both verses of the Negro national anthem "Lift Every Voice and Sing" and understood its history. As a boy, Clinton watched King's "I Have a Dream" speech and was so moved by it, he memorized that as well.
Both Carter and Clinton had to overcome broad suspicions as to whether the country was ready for a Southern governor. Carter had followed segregationists like Eugene Talmadge and Lester Maddox, while Orval Faubus's similar legacy preceded Clinton. Carter had drawn national notice when he used his gubernatorial inaugural address to declare, "I say to you quite frankly that the time for racial discrimination is over." But he still needed validation for his racial bona fides before he could be taken seriously nationally. That validation came from Martin Luther King Sr. and Andrew Young, the former King lieutenant who was elected to Congress, both of whom were strong supporters of his presidential candidacy.
Wednesday, at the Lincoln Memorial, there is no further need for outside validation of any of the three presidents. History has taken care of that.
This article appears in the Aug. 28, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily.