Obama's Significance in History Felt By Professors

Faculty Members Reflect on the Meaning of Presidential Candidate's Nomination at Yesterday's Democratic Convention

Photo: Barack Obama delivered a speech to a crowd of thousands at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium on November 14, 2007.
George Derk/File
Barack Obama delivered a speech to a crowd of thousands at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium on November 14, 2007.

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Correction Appended

Forty-five years ago yesterday, Waldo Martin, Jr. was glued to the television at home in Greensboro, N.C. It wasn't an unusual spot for a 12-year-old to be found, but this day-Aug. 28, 1963-was different. On-screen stood Martin Luther King, Jr., delivering his "I have a dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Fast forward to the present at UC Berkeley, where Martin is a history professor co-teaching a course about civil rights in the United States. Last night, he watched Sen. Barack Obama, the nation's first black major party presidential nominee, give his nomination acceptance speech in Denver, Colo.

For Martin and many other professors, Obama's candidacy opens a new and often personal chapter in their study of American politics, race relations and life.

"I was thrilled," Martin said. "The whole idea of his nomination is thrilling. In my lifetime, I would not have predicted this could happen."

In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, the Illinois senator thanked his supporters, including running mate Sen. Joe Biden. He also took aim at Republican contender Sen. John McCain, linking him to what he called the "failed policies" of President Bush.

"America, we are better than these last eight years," Obama said. "We are a better country than this."

The senator gave his acceptance speech 45 years to the day after King addressed some 250,000 civil rights activists marching in the nation's capitol. It also came 53 years after the day 14-year-old Emmett Till's body was found brutally beaten and drowned in a Mississippi river.

For Robert Allen, an adjunct professor of African American studies and ethnic studies, the changes between 1963 and 2008 seem astonishing.

"While I thought we were making great progress with the March on Washington, I thought we were also generations away from the possibility of electing a black president," said Allen, who grew up in racially segregated Georgia. "For me, history has been speeded up."

The syllabus for Allen's fall seminar, "Men of Color in the United States," includes for the first time Obama's memoir "Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance." Allen said he plans to use it to study the politician's background as a community organizer.

Yesterday also marked the first session of the class that Martin is co-teaching with Mark Brilliant, an assistant professor in history and American studies, titled "Civil Rights and Social Movements in U.S. History: Struggles for Racial Equality in Comparative Perspective, World War II-Present." Martin said he wants to examine how Obama has built a multifaceted coalition that includes young voters, African Americans and Democrats.

"One thing that Obama talks a lot about is hope," Martin said. "How do you sustain hope, possibility? How do you create change? These are the kinds of issues we talk about in class."

Jack Glaser, an associate professor in the Goldman School of Public Policy, said that if Obama wins the election, his victory would serve as a "powerful stimulus" in reducing prejudice and discrimination.

"It will be a constant reminder of the ability of African Americans to achieve at the highest level," Glaser said.

Obama's rise to national prominence also carries significance for UC Berkeley scholars of early American history. One such individual is associate professor Mark Peterson, whose History 7A class will largely focus on slavery.

"(Obama) is an African American who is somewhat statistically or historically in the minority in that the vast majority of African Americans in the U.S. have ancestors who were brought to the New World as slaves," he said. "It gives him an interesting perspective on the variety of the American historical experience."

Peterson said he has known about the senator since before his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention-all the way back to the mid-1980s, when he saw a "tall, striking-looking" figure walking around the Harvard Law School campus.

"I never met him," Peterson said. "There are common people on campus that you just sort of recognize."

Correction: Sept. 1, 2008

An earlier version of this article included a photo caption that incorrectly identified the photo as one of Barack Obama delivering his nomination acceptance speech in Denver. In fact, the photo is of Obama delivering a speech at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium on November 14, 2007.


Stephanie M. Lee is the assistant university news editor. Contact her at [email protected]

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