Would Obama be ‘black president’?

Times Staff Writer

Illinois state Sen. Rickey Hendon served eight years alongside Barack Obama in the state Capitol and plans to endorse him today when Obama launches a bid for the White House. But that does not mean Hendon has set aside the long-simmering doubts that he and other black leaders hold about a man who could become the first African American to occupy the Oval Office.

“I can endorse someone now and change my mind next week,” Democrat Hendon said from Springfield, Ill., where U.S. Sen. Obama (D-Ill.) will kick off his campaign at the old state Capitol. “I’m going to look at how he runs his campaign. I’m going to look closely to see if he raises the issues that are important to my people.”

For many black activists in Obama’s adopted home state, who might be expected to form the core of his political base, a central question still looms about the man who has risen speedily over 11 years from state lawmaker to U.S. senator to a sensation in the 2008 presidential campaign: As he works to appeal to voters across the nation, will Obama stand firm for black people and black causes?

Some of the questions arise from Obama’s upbringing in Hawaii, remote from the urban struggles of Chicago’s black neighborhoods, and from his heritage as the son of a white American mother and black Kenyan father.


Obama is like a “plaid quilt” in which people of different races see themselves, said Eddie Read, chairman of the Black Independent Political Organization. He fears this may leave Obama insufficiently committed to fighting for the black community.

“He would not be the black president. He would be the multicultural president,” said Read. “A black president would fight for black economic and political power.”

Obama’s appeal to white voters leaves some black activists questioning the depth of his links to the black community, said Conrad Worrill, director of inner-city studies at Northeastern Illinois University.

“When white folks begin to put their arms around a black person, there’s always suspicion,” he said. “The question is: Will this generation of new, college-trained beneficiaries of the black political power movement in America fight for black political interests?”

The debate over how to regard Obama was on display in Washington last week, on the sidelines of Democratic National Committee’s winter conference. One of Obama’s closest black supporters called a meeting of African American activists to encourage support for him.

Illinois Senate President Emil Jones Jr., a longtime Obama political patron, told the crowd of about 80 that they should support “our son” and that they did not “owe anything to anyone” -- a comment widely viewed as aimed at Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), whose husband, President Clinton, remains intensely popular in the black community.

In a later response, the Rev. Al Sharpton questioned why blacks should back Obama simply because of his race. Sharpton argued that Obama himself recently endorsed Chicago’s white mayor for reelection, over at least two black challengers.

“You really don’t want to nationally say that blacks should do something for Obama that he himself is not doing at home,” Sharpton told CNN. He continued: “I think what is intelligent and respectful to our community, as in any community, is to talk our interests and our issues.”


In an interview to be broadcast Sunday, Obama acknowledged that he had become the “focal point” of a national discussion on race. He rejected the suggestion that he had not lived the black experience.

“If you look African American in this society, you’re treated as an African American,” he told CBS’ “60 Minutes.” “It’s interesting, though, that now I feel very comfortable and confident in terms of who I am and where I stake my ground.”

Obama has written extensively about his struggle with racial identity. In his bestselling memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” he reflected on his feelings as an outsider when he first arrived in Chicago in 1984, just after the mass movement that made Harold Washington the city’s first black mayor.

“Had to be here before Harold to understand what he means to this city,” Obama recalled an older black barber telling him.


Obama went on to work in the black community, as an organizer, voter registration worker and civil rights lawyer. But tensions between Obama and black leaders in Chicago date to his earliest days as a politician, in 1996, when he angered many in the community by elbowing aside a popular leader in his successful bid for the state Senate.

He began that race as the favored candidate, a charismatic young civil rights lawyer armed with the endorsement of the incumbent state senator, who was leaving to run for Congress. But when that incumbent, Alice Palmer, a beloved fixture in Chicago’s South Side, changed her mind about leaving the Illinois Senate, Obama refused to end his candidacy.

Tensions ran high when some of Chicago’s most influential black leaders confronted Obama and pressed him -- unsuccessfully -- to bow out.

“It was not a pleasant meeting,” recalled Timuel Black, a political activist who at the time opposed Obama but now supports his presidential bid. “There were those, and I was one of them, who felt that this young man should let Alice continue on, since she had the seniority.”


When Palmer tried to collect signatures to retain a slot on the ballot, Obama supporters challenged her petitions, and she was forced to fold.

Worrill, of Northeastern Illinois University, said he and others viewed Palmer’s departure as “a loss” that many black leaders remembered vividly as they watched Obama’s rise.

“We didn’t know Barack Obama,” said Worrill, who is also chairman of the National Black United Front, an activist coalition that calls itself part of the “black liberation movement.” “Alice was a great legislator and an example of an activist out of the ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s who came out of all the fights we had been through.”

Obama arrived in the state capital, Springfield, to a cool reception from his colleagues in the black caucus. Tensions simmered again four years later when he ran against another stalwart of the old guard of African American leadership, U.S. Rep. Bobby L. Rush, a former official in the Black Panther Party.


Rush crushed Obama that year. But, according to Jones, Obama learned a crucial lesson: He needed a patron.

With Jones’ blessing, Obama took a leading role on legislation viewed as important to blacks. He wrote a bill requiring Illinois law enforcement agencies to collect data about the race and ethnicity of all motorists pulled over for violations, an effort to monitor racial profiling. He also pushed legislation requiring police to videotape homicide interrogations, a move designed to protect the innocent from forced confessions. Both became law.

When Obama ran for the U.S. Senate, he reached out early to Jones, who lobbied skeptical members of the black caucus to back Obama’s bid and asked some of Chicago’s wealthy black business leaders to give money.

As for Obama’s initial rocky start in the state Senate race of 1996, Jones said he was glad his friend remained in the race.


“If he had dropped out, we wouldn’t be in this position today to do something great,” he said.