BLACK HISTORY TODAY
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Born on August 4, 1961, in Honolulu, Hawaii, Barack Obama is the 44th and current president of the United States. He was a civil-rights lawyer and teacher before pursuing a political career. He was elected to the Illinois State Senate in 1996, serving from 1997 to 2004. He was elected to the U.S. presidency in 2008
“I guarantee you we will move this country forward. We will finish what we started. And we’ll remind the world just why it is the United States of America is the greatest nation on Earth.”
Barack Hussein Obama was born on August 4, 1961, in Honolulu, Hawaii. His mother, Ann Dunham, grew up in Wichita, Kansas, where her father worked on oil rigs during the Great Depression. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Dunham’s father, Stanley, enlisted in the service and marched across Europe in Patton’s army. Dunham’s mother, Madelyn, went to work on a bomber assembly line. After the war, the couple studied on the G.I. Bill, bought a house through the Federal Housing Program and, after several moves, landed in Hawaii.
Barack Obama’s father, Barack Obama Sr., was born of Luo ethnicity in Nyanza Province, Kenya. Obama Sr. grew up herding goats in Africa, eventually earning a scholarship that allowed him to leave Kenya and pursue his dreams of college in Hawaii. While studying at the University of Hawaii in Manoa, Obama Sr. met fellow student Ann Dunham, and they married on February 2, 1961. Barack was born six months later.
Obama did not have a relationship with his father as a child. When his son was still an infant, Obama Sr. relocated to Massachusetts to attend Harvard University, pursuing a Ph.D. Barack’s parents officially separated several months later and ultimately divorced in March 1964, when their son was 2. In 1965, Obama Sr. returned to Kenya.
In 1965, Dunham married Lolo Soetoro, an East–West Center student from Indonesia. A year later, the family moved to Jakarta, Indonesia, where Barack’s half-sister, Maya Soetoro Ng, was born. Several incidents in Indonesia left Dunham afraid for her son’s safety and education so, at the age of 10, Barack was sent back to Hawaii to live with his maternal grandparents. His mother and sister later joined them.
While living with his grandparents, Obama enrolled in the esteemed Punahou Academy, excelling in basketball and graduating with academic honors in 1979. As one of only three black students at the school, Obama became conscious of racism and what it meant to be African-American. He later described how he struggled to reconcile social perceptions of his multiracial heritage with his own sense of self: “I began to notice there was nobody like me in the Sears, Roebuck Christmas catalog … and that Santa was a white man,” he said. “I went to the bathroom and stood in front of the mirror with all my senses and limbs seemingly intact, looking the way I had always looked, and wondered if something was wrong with me.”
Obama also struggled with the absence of his father, who he saw only once more after his parents divorced, when Obama Sr. visited Hawaii for a short time in 1971. “[My father] had left paradise, and nothing that my mother or grandparents told me could obviate that single, unassailable fact,” he later reflected. “They couldn’t describe what it might have been like had he stayed.”
Ten years later, in 1981, tragedy struck Obama Sr. He was involved in a serious car accident,losing both of his legs as a result. Confined to a wheelchair, he also lost his job. In 1982, Obama Sr. was involved in yet another car accident while traveling in Nairobi. This time, however, the crash was fatal. Obama Sr. died on November 24, 1982, when Barack was 21 years old. “At the time of his death, my father remained a myth to me,” Obama later said, “both more and less than a man.”
After high school, Obama studied at Occidental College in Los Angeles for two years. He then transferred to Columbia University in New York, graduating in 1983 with a degree in political science. After working in the business sector for two years, Obama moved to Chicago in 1985. There, he worked on the South Side as a community organizer for low-income residents in the Roseland and the Altgeld Gardens communities.
It was during this time that Barack Obama, who said he “was not raised in a religious household,” joined the Trinity United Church of Christ. He also visited relatives in Kenya, which included an emotional visit to the graves of his biological father and paternal grandfather. “For a long time I sat between the two graves and wept,” Obama said. “I saw that my life in America—the black life, the white life, the sense of abandonment I felt as a boy, the frustration and hope I’d witnessed in Chicago—all of it was connected with this small plot of earth an ocean away.”
Obama returned from Kenya with a sense of renewal, entering Harvard Law School in 1988. The next year, he met Michelle Robinson, an associate at the Chicago law firm of Sidley Austin. She was assigned to be Obama’s adviser during a summer internship at the firm, and not long after, the couple began dating. Their first kiss took place outside of a Chicago shopping center—where a plaque featuring a photo of the couple kissing was installed more than two decades later, in August 2012. In February 1990, Obama was elected the first African-American editor of the Harvard Law Review. He graduated from Harvard, magna cum laude, in 1991.
After law school, Obama returned to Chicago to practice as a civil rights lawyer, joining the firm of Miner, Barnhill & Galland. He also taught part time at the University of Chicago Law School (1992-2004)—first as a lecturer and then as a professor—and helped organize voter registration drives during Bill Clinton‘s 1992 presidential campaign. On October 3, 1992, he and Michelle were married. They moved to Kenwood, on Chicago’s South Side, and welcomed two daughters several years later: Malia (born 1998) and Sasha (born 2001).
Obama published an autobiography, Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, in 1995. The work received high praise from literary figures like Toni Morrison and has since been printed in 10 languages, including Chinese, Swedish and Hebrew. The book had a second printing in 2004, and was adapted for a children’s version. The 2006 audiobook version of Dreams, narrated by Obama, received a Grammy Award (best spoken word album).
Obama’s advocacy work led him to run for a seat in the Illinois State Senate. He ran as a Democrat, and won election in 1996. During these years, Obama worked with both Democrats and Republicans to draft legislation on ethics, and expand health care services and early childhood education programs for the poor. He also created a state earned-income tax credit for the working poor. Obama became chairman of the Illinois Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee as well, and after a number of inmates on death row were found innocent, he worked with law enforcement officials to require the videotaping of interrogations and confessions in all capital cases.
In 2000, Obama made an unsuccessful Democratic primary run for the U.S. House of Representatives seat held by four-term incumbent candidate Bobby Rush. Undeterred, he created a campaign committee in 2002, and began raising funds to run for a seat in the U.S. Senate in 2004. With the help of political consultant David Axelrod, Obama began assessing his prospects of a Senate win.
Following the 9/11 attacks in 2001, Obama was an early opponent of President George W. Bush‘s push to go to war with Iraq. Obama was still a state senator when he spoke against a resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq during a rally at Chicago’s Federal Plaza in October 2002. “I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars,” he said. “What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other arm-chair, weekend warriors in this Administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne.” Despite his protests, the Iraq War began in 2003.
Obama, encouraged by poll numbers, decided to run for the U.S. Senate open seat vacated by Republican Peter Fitzgerald. In the 2004 Democratic primary, he won 52 percent of the vote, defeating multimillionaire businessman Blair Hull and Illinois Comptroller Daniel Hynes. That summer, he was invited to deliver the keynote speech in support of John Kerry at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. Obama emphasized the importance of unity, and made veiled jabs at the Bush Administration and the diversionary use of wedge issues.
After the convention, Obama returned to his U.S. Senate bid in Illinois. His opponent in the general election was supposed to be Republican primary winner Jack Ryan, a wealthy former investment banker. However, Ryan withdrew from the race in June 2004, following public disclosure of unsubstantiated sexual deviancy allegations by Ryan’s ex-wife, actress Jeri Ryan.
In August 2004, diplomat and former presidential candidate Alan Keyes accepted the Republican nomination to replace Ryan. In three televised debates, Obama and Keyes expressed opposing views on stem cell research, abortion, gun control, school vouchers and tax cuts. In the November 2004 general election, Obama received 70 percent of the vote to Keyes’ 27 percent, the largest electoral victory in Illinois history. With his win, Barack Obama became only the third African-American elected to the U.S. Senate since the Reconstruction.
Sworn into office January 4, 2005, Obama partnered with Republican Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana on a bill that expanded efforts to destroy weapons of mass destruction in Eastern Europe and Russia. Then, with Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, he created a website to track all federal spending. Obama also spoke out for victims of Hurricane Katrina, pushed for alternative energy development, and championed improved veterans’ benefits.
His second book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, was published in October 2006. The work discussed Obama’s visions for the future of America, many of which became talking points for his eventual presidential campaign. Shortly after its release, it hit No. 1 on both the New York Times and Amazon.com best-seller lists.
In February 2007, Obama made headlines when he announced his candidacy for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. He was locked in a tight battle with former first lady and then-U.S. senator from New York Hillary Rodham Clinton. On June 3, 2008, however, Obama became the presumptive nominee for the Democratic Party, and Senator Clinton delivered her full support to Obama for the duration of his campaign. On November 4, 2008, Barack Obama defeated Republican presidential nominee John McCain, 52.9 percent to 45.7 percent, winning election as the 44th president of the United States—and the first African-American to hold this office. His running mate, Delaware Senator Joe Biden, became vice president. Obama’s inauguration took place on January 20, 2009.
When Obama took office, he inherited a global economic recession, two ongoing foreign wars and the lowest international favorability rating for the United States ever. He campaigned on an ambitious agenda of financial reform, alternative energy, and reinventing education and health care—all while bringing down the national debt. Because these issues were intertwined with the economic well-being of the nation, he believed all would have to be undertaken simultaneously. During his inauguration speech, Obama summarized the situation by saying, “Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many.
Obama achieved a major legislative victoy on January 1, 2013, when the Republican-controlled House of Representatives approved a bipartisan agreement on tax increases and spending cuts, in an effort to avoid the looming fiscal cliff crisis (the Senate voted in favor of the bill earlier that day). The agreement marked a productive first step toward the president’s re-election promise of reducing the federal defecit by raising taxes on the extremely wealthy—individuals earning more than $400,000 per year and couples earning more than $450,000, according to the bill. Prior to the the bill’s passage, in late 2012, tense negotiations between Republicans and Democrats over spending cuts and tax increases became a bitter political battle. Vice President Joe Biden managed to hammer out a deal with Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Obama pledged to sign the bill into law.
Barack Obama officially began his second term on January 21, 2013. The inauguration was held on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Civil rights activist Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of Medgar Evers, gave the invocation. James Taylor, Beyoncé Knowles andKelly Clarkson sang at the ceremony and poet Richard Blanco read his poem “One Today.” U.S. Supreme Court Chief John Robertsconducted Obama’s presidential oath of office. After completing his oath, Obama was congratulated by his wife Michelle and daughters Malia and Sasha.
In his inaugural address, Obama called the nation to action on such issues as climate change, health care and marriage equality. “We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years and 40 years and 400 years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall,” Obama told the crowd gathered in front of the U.S. Capitol building.
Celebrations continued that day. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama attended two official inauguration balls, including one held at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. There the first couple danced the Al Green classic “Let’s Stay Together,” sung by Jennifer Hudson. Alicia Keys and Jamie Foxxalso performed.
- African American History | First Black Elected to Head Harvard’s Law Review (3chicspolitico.com)