It started with a train ride. Barack Obama rode to Washington, D.C., for his presidential inauguration on a whistle-stop tour. “To the children who hear the whistle of the train and dream of a better life – that’s who we’re fighting for,” Obama said along the tour, which was compared to the train ride taken by Abraham Lincoln from Springfield, Ill., to Washington, D.C., in February 1861, en route to his first inauguration. The comparisons between Obama and Lincoln abound, describing the arc between the abolition of slavery in the United States and the election of the first African-American president.
The train holds a deeper symbolism, though, that undergirds Obama’s historic ascension to the White House, harking back to the civil-rights struggle, reflecting the unprecedented grass-roots activism that formed the core of the Obama campaign and laying out where the nation under the Obama administration might go.
A. Philip Randolph was a legendary labor organizer and civil-rights leader. He organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. While the porter positions paid better than many jobs available to African-Americans at the time, there were still injustices and indignities. The common practice, for example, was to call all porters “George,” after the owner of the company, George Pullman. Thousands of porters sought improvements through collective bargaining. Randolph’s organizing struggle took 12 years, starting in 1925 and going through the economic collapse of 1929 and into the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration.
Harry Belafonte recalled in an interview with Tavis Smiley recently a story he was told by Eleanor Roosevelt. She related a public event when her husband, FDR, introduced Randolph and asked him, Belafonte recalled, “what he thought of the nation, what he thought of the plight of the Negro people and what did he think … where the nation was headed.”
Belafonte recounted what FDR replied upon hearing Randolph’s remarks: “You know, Mr. Randolph, I’ve heard everything you’ve said tonight, and I couldn’t agree with you more. I agree with everything that you’ve said, including my capacity to be able to right many of these wrongs and to use my power and the bully pulpit. … But I would ask one thing of you, Mr. Randolph, and that is go out and make me do it.”
This story was retold by Obama at a campaign fundraiser in Montclair, N.J., more than a year ago. It was in response to a person asking Obama about finding a just solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. After recounting the Randolph story, Obama said he was just one person, that he couldn’t do it alone. Obama’s final answer: “Make me do it.”
That’s the challenge.
After settling the Pullman labor struggle, Randolph continued on. He challenged FDR, by beginning to organize a march on Washington set for 1941, to desegregate the military and to ensure that the economic activity around the war effort was equally available to African-Americans. FDR issued an executive order, and later, President Harry S. Truman desegregated the military. Randolph, Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King Jr. organized the 1963 March on Washington, which itself has served as a strong symbolic backdrop to Obama’s victory. This historic weekend also coincides with King’s birthday. If King had survived, he would have just turned 80 years old.
As Obama completes his first week as president, some might caution that it’s only fair to wait and see what he might do. But the peace group Code Pink is not waiting. Along the inaugural parade route, they were handing out thousands of pink ribbons, encouraging people to join them in holding President Obama to his campaign peace promises: end the war in Iraq; shut down Guantanamo; reject the Military Commissions Act; stop torture; work to eliminate nuclear weapons; hold direct, unconditional talks with Iran; and abide by Senate-approved international treaties.
Just follow Obama’s own advice: Make him do it.
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