The story will be told for generations: A Black man-elegant in his appearance, brilliant in his delivery-beat out the toughest politicians in the nation to become the first Black American president. Reporting from the venerable Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Isabel Wilkerson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, combs through the data to tell us just how the race was won.
Tuesday, November 4, 2008, 7:00 P.M. (EST)
A few polls had just closed on the East Coast. Crowds had already gathered on both sides of Auburn Avenue, where Martin Luther King, Jr., had led the Civil Rights Movement from Atlanta. The throng filled the sidewalks and the lawn of Ebenezer Baptist Church, a bittersweet warrior of a church, one of the most famous in America.
The people stood holding candles, so many candles that all that could be seen was a sea of blinking diamonds in the velvet night. There was no room to move and too many people to fit into the sanctuary. There was an uncharacteristic air of oneness, of letting others go ahead of you, of making room for fathers with strollers and elders with canes, of smiling into the eyes of the person beside you. The crowd was silent, as if holding its collective breath after so many months of being on the verge of the impossible.
The numbers began coming in. The people scrolled their BlackBerrys and strained to hear on their cell phones. Vermont had been called for Senator Barack Obama of Illinois. New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts. But they were expected. The electoral votes were already looking lopsided in Obama’s favor.
Then someone shouted, “He won Pennsylvania!” as if she herself had won Pennsylvania, which in a way, she had. The texting sped up, grew more urgent and frenetic. The crowd began to sense change in the wind. People too young to remember the movement began singing spirituals and movement songs from the sixties: “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine. Let it shine. Let it shine. Let it shine….”
At the side of the church, clumps of people who couldn’t get inside stood on their tiptoes, their faces pressed against the sanctuary windows. They held their cameras to the windows and craned to see the election results on the screens inside. “He won Ohio!” a woman reported to the people around her. “We’re leading Florida. It’s real. Oh, God!”
The Day Before Tomorrow
By 11:00 P.M. (EST), at the precise moment the polls closed on the West Coast, the race was over, stunning in its speed and finality. That night, for the first time in history, in a country where Blacks were long prohibited from voting at all, an African-American was elected president of the United States. It will take time to digest that statement. Generations from now history books will record the election, and children will tell their grandchildren about the night a Black man won the highest office in the land. But that doesn’t begin to capture the significance and meaning of the election we had just witnessed.
How he won is perhaps as extraordinary as the winning itself. His biography is well-known by now: only son of a Kenyan father and a White mother from Kansas who met in Hawaii, Columbia undergrad, Harvard Law and so on. But what will take time to absorb is how a Black man, a virtually unknown state senator from Illinois, fast-forwarded past more obstacles than one dares contemplate to make it to the White House.
So many things that could have gone wrong didn’t. So many things he did were absolutely on target. So many things beyond anyone’s control went in his favor-the credit crisis, the gas crisis, the Wall Street meltdown, the stock market bust. At every turn, so many things had to happen to make the unthinkable possible that it required the perfect storm of a flawless campaign, an inspiring and disciplined candidate, an electorate hungry for his message, the foibles and missteps of his opponents and an economy in such turmoil that even people who never thought they would vote for a Black man felt they had no choice.
It could be said that the first stirrings began when Obama won the Democratic nomination for the United States Senate from Illinois. His Republican opponent got caught in a sex scandal and had to drop out. Obama was tapped to deliver a speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Had he not given that career-defining speech, the buzz might not have spread that he could be a presidential contender. Without the buzz, he might not have gotten support early enough to mount a strong campaign, and so on. He had the impeccable timing of running when the incumbent President, George W. Bush, had the lowest approval ratings of any president in modern history, when gas prices were the highest recorded, when the stock market plunged dramatically in the past year, when banks were collapsing and we were in the midst of two intractable and troubling wars. Add to that an uncharacteristically disorganized Republican opponent with an offbeat running mate more visible on Saturday Night Live than on the sober Sunday morning news shows, and Barack Obama had his perfect storm.
The Game Changer
It seems inevitable now. But for months, the press and the pundits fretted over the role of race in the campaign, focusing first on whether he was Black enough to get Black support, then whether he was mainstream enough to get White votes, then whether the polls showing the race tightening or loosening were accurate, and then whether the undecided voters were McCain supporters in hiding who might sink Obama’s ambitions.
Throughout the obsessing, Obama plowed through red states and blue states, seeming to pay the hand-wringing no mind, running what even his opponents described as a near-flawless campaign. It was a millennial, technocratic, Internet-powered grassroots movement that virtually willed a voter base by inviting people to donate as little as $5, asking them to recruit a friend to do the same, flooding them with e-mail updates on Obama’s every move and then, most important, directing them to the nearest polls by ZIP code on November 4. The campaign built its own voter bloc, and thus came victory, the way sleeper movies become blockbusters, through momentum and word of mouth. And that was just the ground game.
The candidate himself was not just a Black candidate with Black support, as television pundits often portrayed him to be, particularly during the Democratic primaries, where it was said he might not do well in this or that state because Black people only account for about 13 percent of the total U.S. population. How quickly some in the press forgot that he won the Iowa caucuses over the formidable front-runner and most famous woman in politics, Hillary Clinton, and over the former vice-presidential candidate John Edwards, both of whom had deeply loyal fan bases in a state that was close to 95 percent White.
What made him distinctive was not his race but the machinelike discipline of an Ivy League professorial overachiever, who seemed able to tap into the frustrations of an electorate, a country that was fed up with an exceptionally unpopular incumbent and looking for something to believe in. He managed to maintain his cool regardless of the circumstances, and seemed never to need sleep. Steve Schmidt, chief strategist for his opponent John McCain, quoted in The New York Times, described Obama as a formidable candidate, “ice-cold disciplined about the execution of his campaign message.”
Breaking Many Barriers
November 2, 2008. Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta. It was the Sunday before Election Day. A calm had settled over the sanctuary. All that could be done had been done. It was now in God’s hands.
A simple wooden cross hung from the skylit ceiling, as the pastor, the Reverend Raphael G. Warnock, began to pray. “We pray for the morning,” he intoned. “We pray for the nation at this time of transition as we go to the polls. Hear our prayers, oh, God.” He looked out at the packed pews and asked how many people had already voted. Nearly every hand went up.
“Amen,” he said in approval.
Throughout the service, he did not call Obama by name. It was bigger than him. This was the church of Dr. King and so many others who had not lived to see this day. It was as if it was understood that the dream was so close, it dared not be uttered.
“We are on the brink of a promise,” the reverend said.
It could not have been known then, but Barack Obama was not just about to win. He was about to break records in a way that Democrats, so accustomed to heartbreaking squeakers that came down to one battleground state, could not have fathomed going in. The campaign will likely be studied by politicians and strategists for many election cycles to come. What does it take, they will ask, for an African-American with an unusual last name, no political pedigree, from a battered political party that had lost its hold on a whole section of the country (the South) and had lost more than half of all presidential elections since the 1950’s-what does it take for such a candidate to win?
The extraordinary nature of Obama’s win on that Tuesday in November only begins with his race. Since 1960, when John F. Kennedy eked out a victory over Richard M. Nixon, no Democrat has won the White House unless he was from the South. Until that Tuesday. In the past 40 years, only two Democrats have made it to the White House, and they were both southern governors whose last names began with the letter C (Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton). Until that Tuesday. No Democrat had won the states of Virginia and Indiana since Johnson. Until that Tuesday.
Obama was the first to win North Carolina since Jimmy Carter; North Carolina having eluded the more popular fellow southerner Bill Clinton. Indeed, Obama won states that were inconceivable just four years ago, handily carrying the two that had ended the hopes of Al Gore in 2000 (Florida) and John Kerry in 2004 (Ohio), winning with large enough margins that there was no need for talk of hanging chads or recounts. Obama broke all kinds of records-more people watched CNN that night than any night in its history; more text messages were sent between 11:00 P.M. and midnight than ever before-and nearly every kernel of conventional wisdom. He was not a governor, as most presidents in modern times of any party have been. His name does not end with a consonant, which was a long-held axiom of the presidency. Until that Tuesday.
He virtually rewrote the rules of campaign fund-raising in ways that candidates will likely seek to emulate in elections to come. The campaign raised some $640 million, that is, nearly two thirds of a billion dollars-more than any candidate in U.S. presidential history. Perhaps most surprising, Obama literally did what no one who has ever run for president has done: More Americans voted for him than for anyone who has ever run for the top job. He won 66,760,924 popular votes-more than George W. Bush, who ran with the advantage of incumbency in 2004 (62,028,285 votes), more than Bill Clinton in his 1996 reelection (47,402,357 votes), and even more than the president who won by a landslide, Ronald Reagan, in 1984 (54,455,075 votes). The nation’s population has grown since the days of Reagan, but the numbers are breathtaking given the unlikely odds facing an unknown politician who just four years ago was a fairly new state senator in Illinois.
Thus, while much of the coverage has focused on the meaning of his victory to Black voters, that emphasis does not acknowledge the candidate’s disciplined strategy, the multiracial nature of his campaign, the many famous and unknown people who gave their lives so that Black people might be in a position to run for the highest office, and the deepest wishes of many African-Americans who held their breaths in hopes that their fellow Americans of other colors might support someone who looked like them.
The momentous nature of his win extends to the composition of those who voted for him. The truth of the matter is that, like other Democrats, Obama could not have won the election without the Black vote. But while Black voters turned out in droves for him, he could not have won on the basis of the Black vote alone. And, like other Democrats, if he had had to depend on the White vote alone, as The New York Times observed, he would have lost. Still, despite worries about what White voters might or might not do, it appears that Obama did better than most Democratic nominees. The average Democrat running for president draws 39 percent of the White vote, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll. Data showed Obama drawing 44 percent support among Whites, a higher percentage than Bill Clinton.
Obama, by his charisma, the devotion of his tear-filled fans, the massive multiracial crowds he drew, the global obsession with his victory and the virtual movement he created, may have already secured a place for himself among figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela. But it will take time to digest the many other points of significance of a once little-known state legislator leading a moribund political party to a decisive and long-awaited victory with the votes of so many inspired people of every color, age and creed.
Ebenezer Baptist Church, Postelection Sunday
“We will tell the coming generations of the glorious deeds of the Lord,” Rev. Warnock is saying to a packed house of parishioners who appear to be walking more lightly, backs straighter, with smiles they can’t contain. “How many of you know that the Lord is still good?” he asked the congregation to a chorus of “Yes, Lords” and “Amens.”
Then he mentioned the president-elect by name. “Barack Obama stood this week against the fierce tide of history and achieved the unimaginable,” he said. “But he didn’t get where he is by himself. And wherever he is, you stand there, too. Somebody had to pay a mighty high price for you to sit where you sit and stand where you stand.”
He named Dr. King, Medgar Evers, Fannie Lou Hamer, Septima Clark, Shirley Chisholm, Jesse Jackson and others who led the way or “planted the seed of the unimaginable in the imagination of the American people.”
John Lewis, the congressman and foot soldier of the movement who attends Ebenezer, testified: “This is the most powerful moment in modern American history. It’s the beginning of a new beginning. I feel blessed to be living. But I’m sad that so many people who began on this journey didn’t live to see it. Some shot, some lynched, some beaten. Some never got to vote at all. We voted for them. We voted for them.”
Isabel Wilkerson is the James M. Cox, Jr., professor of journalism at Emory University and is currently completing a book on the migration of African-Americans during the twentieth century.
This story ran in January’s Special Collector’s Edition. Grab the 56-page tribute still on news stands now.