Forty-five years to the day after Martin Luther King delivered his
“I have a dream” speech, Barack Obama will become the first black man
picked by a major party to run for president. Having picked Senator Joe
Biden as his running mate, he is due to accept the Democratic
nomination as their candidate in front of 75,000 supporters in Denver
It is a coincidence of dates not lost on Dr Gene Young, who - aged
12 - was among more than 200,000 civil rights supporters who heard Dr
King spell out his hope for a future where people of all colours would
live together harmoniously as equals.
“Obama’s nomination is a dream,” says the retired university
professor. “I remember the protests, the police dogs and the fire
hoses. I remember those who died in the fight to register black people
to vote. I remember the church burnings. And now we could have a black
president of the United States. I’m not just happy - I’m thrilled. I’m
Despite his tender years and 4ft frame, Dr Young, now 57, was
already a seasoned civil rights protester when he listened to Dr King’s
famous address in Washington on August 28, 1963. By then, he had been
arrested twice in his hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, the location of
some of the ugliest incidents in the struggle for black rights in the
Deep South. On the second occasion, he and his fellow detainees were
held in the livestock pens at the city fairgrounds. “They thought we
were no better than animals and kept us in the pens for horses and
cows,” he recalls with a wry smile and shake of a head.
Those who had the temerity to challenge segregationist laws that
treated African-Americans as second-class citizens faced arrest,
violence or death. In one of the most notorious incidents of the era,
three young activists - two white, one black - were murdered while
investigating a church arson in a case made famous by the 1988 film
Just two generations later, the son of a black man from Kenya and a
white woman from Kansas is narrowly leading the polls in the battle to
become the most powerful politician in the world.
Despite this dramatic progress, race remains a powerful but
immeasurable factor in contemporary America. And as Mr Obama’s polling
lead over his Republican rival, John McCain, narrows markedly, there
are growing questions about whether skin colour is at play.
Given the country’s painful recent past, race is an issue around
which Americans do their best to dance. Instead, it is being aired in
surrogate language as questions are raised about patriotism and
“American values”. And in the background, a virulent internet campaign
promotes the stubborn fallacy that the youthful senator is a Muslim
(substituting religion for race, with much the same effect).
“Race is the elephant in the living room here in America. Nobody
wants to talk about it, but it’s a factor,” says Dr Young at his home
in Jackson. “Racism is not as overt and obvious as it once was. We keep
hearing that America wants a change - but does it want change enough to
vote for a black man? We’ll learn that on election day. If he wins, I
will die a happy man.”
Across the Pearl River, in predominantly white and rural Rankin
County, there is anxiety rather than excitement about Mr Obama’s
prospects. Among the hunters and anglers shopping for guns, crossbows,
fishing rods and camouflage gear at the cavernous Bass Pro superstore,
his race and religion are viewed with scepticism.
In opinion polls, about 10 per cent of Americans consistently
believe that Senator Obama is a Muslim, because his father and
stepfather were Muslim, his middle name is Hussein and he went to
school for four years in Islamic Indonesia - even though he has
attended a Chicago church for nearly two decades. Such views were easy
to find at Bass Pro last week. “I’m afraid that if he wins, he will go
back to his Muslim upbringing and change the country to reflect that,”
says John McKellar, a 22-year-old gardener.
“He says he’s become a Christian but I’m not sure. His Muslim past
and this talk about change worry me. He’s got a lot of support among
African-Americans, but my friends are Christian church-going people
like me and they all feel the same way.”
In another unpredictable twist to a highly unusual campaign, the
first major accusation of the “race card” being played in the
Obama-McCain showdown came from the Republicans and elicited a partial
apology from the Democratic candidate.
Senator Obama had told supporters to expect a campaign of prejudice
and fear from his rivals. “You know, ‘He’s not patriotic enough, he’s
got a funny name.’ You know, ‘He doesn’t look like all those other
presidents on those dollar bills.’ You know, ‘He’s risky.’ That’s
essentially the argument they’re making.”
That produced a furious response from Team McCain. “Barack Obama has
played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck.
It’s divisive, negative, shameful and wrong,” said top McCain adviser
Discussing matters of race has always been a minefield in American
political life, but those sensitivities have only heightened this year.
The New Yorker magazine found itself at the centre of a row recently
when it ran a satirical cover cartoon of Mr Obama dressed in Islamic
robes and his wife as a black‑power activist.
Joke writers for late-night television hosts, for whom lampooning
presidential candidates is staple fare, admit that they have been wary
of taking cracks at Mr Obama’s appearance or style for fear they could
be perceived as racist.
Yet even in his ethnic heritage, Mr Obama breaks stereotypes. Unlike
most African-Americans, he is not the descendant of slaves. He spent
his teenage years in Hawaii with his white maternal grandparents. Nor,
at 47, is he a product of the civil rights era - also in contrast to
most black politicians before him.
Indeed, in Chicago his exotic roots and Ivy League education meant
he was viewed with suspicion by some in the black political community.
Those doubts were eased by his marriage to Michelle Robinson, who
hailed from a working-class South Side district, and his attendance at
the church of Rev Jeremiah Wright, where many of the city’s black
So it is not without irony that those same links to Rev Wright have
turned into one of his greatest political headaches - and will
doubtless be highlighted as the presidential election on November 4
approaches and the campaign turns uglier.
Mr Obama came under fire from McCain supporters last week for
another controversial Chicago connection that is being used to raise
doubts about his patriotism. The advertisement highlighted his
friendship with William Ayers, a former member of the Weather
Underground, a militant far-Left group that bombed government buildings
In the first months of his titanic primary campaign struggle with
Mrs Clinton, Mr Obama was at great pains not to portray himself as an
African-American candidate - with such success that some veterans of
the civil rights movement even asked whether he was “black enough”.
But that strategy took a major knock in March when the Rev Wright
affair transformed him, in the eyes of many, from a candidate who
happened to be black into a black candidate. Mr Obama was thrown on to
the back foot when some fiery sermons by his long-time pastor,
spiritual mentor and black empowerment theologian emerged on YouTube.
The controversy forced Mr Obama to deliver what is widely viewed as
his greatest speech in this campaign when he addressed the topics of
race and religion in Philadelphia a few days later.
Yet since March Mr Obama has also increasingly lost the support of
white working-class voters to Mrs Clinton in Democratic primaries in
states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. And all the
indications are that he is still struggling to win them over to his
According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC opinion poll last week, just
52 per cent of Clinton supporters in the Democratic primaries are
currently backing Mr Obama, with 21 per cent switching party
allegiances to Mr McCain and 27 per cent undecided. How many are
motivated by the colour of Mr Obama’s skin is unclear, as voters are
famously averse to telling pollsters whether race affects their choice.
Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Centre, said one “real
frailty” of polls on racism was that large numbers of people refused to
take part in them.
“Are current polls accurate? I don’t know. This is something every pollster I know is concerned about,” he said.
Polls have regularly overestimated support for black candidates when
it comes to voting day. The phenomenon has a name - the Bradley Effect
- after Tom Bradley, a black Democrat who lost the 1992 Californian
gubernatorial election despite surveys and even exit polls giving him a
clear lead. Subsequent research showed that Mr Bradley had secured less
white support than polls indicated. There was speculation that Mr Obama
suffered from the Bradley Effect when he lost the New Hampshire
primary, despite enjoying a large lead in most polls, and later polls
in other states often exaggerated his final support.
Reflecting these findings, Matthew Dowd, chief strategist for
President George W Bush’s 2004 campaign, said recently: “I wouldn’t
want to be Obama and up two points going into election day. My guess is
that the Obama campaign understands that and they know it’s not enough
to be ahead - they have to be ahead by a lot.”
Even in this most unconventional of elections, Mr Obama’s name at
the head of the Democratic ticket has thrown up one further highly
implausible racial scenario. For some of the country’s most prominent
white supremacists are backing a black man to become president because
they believe his arrival in the White House will act as a “wake-up
call” to America and bring new recruits to their cause. David Duke, a
former Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and
self-described “white nationalist”, outlined that theory in a recent
essay, “A Black Flag for White America”.
At his home in rural Mississippi, Richard Barrett, a champion of
segregation and skinheads, made clear that he would be backing Mr Obama
Although he declined to say how he would vote, he said he would cast
a ballot on November 4 and it would not be for any of the other
candidates. “Our goal is to radicalise America so we can achieve a new
revolution,” explains Mr Barrett, leader of the Nationalist Movement
and a lawyer who has advised Klansmen accused of murder.
“This country is facing the greatest conflagration in its history.
I’m talking about an Obama victory, about the flag of New Africa
replacing the Stars and Stripes, about the extinguishing of America and
the American way of life.
“An Obama victory will revolutionise and energise the American
people like never before. I think Obama is going to win and I think we
will benefit from the backlash against that victory.”
Such views are increasingly marginal, however, even in modern
Mississippi. More reflective of new realities was the scene at Pearl
High School last week as black and white students, who will be 18 by
November 4, registered to vote.
The Obama campaign’s priority across the South is to sign up young
people and the black community - two of his key constituencies that
traditionally have low voter-turnout - for the electoral rolls. Four
decades ago, voter registration was a life and death affair in the
Magnolia State. Now young volunteers are once again pouring into
Mississippi in another great registration drive.
Dr Young is a passionate champion for that cause. “People lost their
lives so we could enjoy the right to vote. So don’t insult me by
telling me you’re not registered to vote. It’s the least we owe
Additional reporting by William Lowther in Washington