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Last Updated: Tuesday, 3 July 2007, 11:09 GMT 12:09 UK
A black man in the White House?
Senator Barack Obama has taken a big lead in the competition to raise political donations for the 2008 White House race. But he has many bridges to cross if he is to become the first black president, not least attracting the support of white southerners, writes the BBC's Nick Bryant.

Black Man in the White House is the title not of some fashionable new Washington parlour game devoted to the notion, once unthinkable, of an African-American occupying the Oval Office, but of a book published in 1963 by E Frederic Morrow, the first black man to serve as a presidential aide.

Martin Luther King Jr, E Frederic Morrow, President Eisenhower, A Philllip Randolph - 23 June 1958
Morrow (at back) was treated with suspicion at the White House
Up until his appointment in the mid-50s, black White House employees appeared either with pristine white towels draped over their arms or cleaning mops in their hands.

Morrow, a successful PR man, had arrived ostensibly to help shape policy, not that his boss, President Dwight D Eisenhower, much valued his counsel.

The former general wanted to attract black support in key northern battleground states - after all, the Republicans were the party of Abraham Lincoln - and Morrow was recruited for mainly ornamental purposes.

Morrow's delight at achieving this striking "racial first" was matched only by the distaste of his new workmates.

White secretaries refused to work with him; and he was prohibited from being alone in the same room with any female employee, lest he sexually molest them.

Fifty years on, Senator Barack Obama has a plausible chance of becoming the occupant, with whomever he so chooses, both of the Oval Office and Executive Mansion.

Identity search

Before the civil rights era, Washington DC was notoriously unwelcoming to its black residents and visitors.

African diplomats looked on Washington as a hardship posting, because of the difficulty in finding landlords who would allow them to rent suitable apartments
For black passengers travelling from north to south, Union Station in Washington was the point of transfer at which they moved from an integrated carriage to one that was strictly segregated.

African diplomats looked on the city as a hardship posting, because of the difficulty in finding landlords who would allow them to rent suitable apartments.

Even black congressmen, Mr Obama's forerunners, suffered many of the same indignities.

Under an unwritten code of conduct, black lawmakers - there were just two in 1945 compared with 41 today - were barred from using Congress's barber shops and swimming pool.

Black reporters were barred even from the press gallery. No wonder Capitol Hill was often called the "Old Southern Home", and widely viewed as the only place in the US where the south had not lost the civil war.

Freedom Riders at a bus station in Montgomery, Alabama, 1961
Life in the South was strictly segregated when Obama was born
Barack Obama was born in the summer of 1961, the year that the famed "freedom riders" encountered the brute force of southern racism as they tried to bring about the desegregation of "Dixie" bus terminals.

But he was born not in the states of the Old Confederacy, the cauldron of the civil rights struggle, but in Hawaii. His parents were Kenyan and Kansan, and his step-father Indonesian, hence his Jakarta primary education.

His teenage years became a search for identity rather than a struggle for equality. And in the use, and abuse, of alcohol, marijuana and cocaine, Barack Obama found a way to "push questions of who I was out of my mind", he reflected in his 1995 memoir.


Mr Obama's true identity remains to this day a subject of conjecture. The campaign cliche has it that Mr Obama is an African and an American, though not an authentic African-American.

True, Mr Obama became a community worker in the mid-80s helping Chicago's underprivileged, many of whom shared his skin colour.

But his civil rights credentials pale in comparison to other black lawmakers, most notably Congressman John Lewis, a battle-hardened veteran both of the freedom rides and Selma's Bloody Sunday in 1965, when civil rights protesters were savagely beaten by police.

Barack Obama and Bill Clinton at 25th anniversary commemorations for Selma
Bill Clinton is sometimes known as the 'first black president'
So Sen Obama's highly-publicised appearance in Selma in March to mark the 42nd anniversary of Bloody Sunday had the feel of a job applicant looking, at the last minute, to embellish, even rectify, his resume.

By joining Mr Lewis and other civil rights legends, he was pursuing a strategy of association aimed at siphoning black support from Hillary Clinton, the wife of a politician once described by novelist Toni Morrison as America's "first black president".

Historical irony

But as Mr Obama well knows, there are electoral pitfalls in aligning too closely with the civil rights struggle.

Once known as the "Solid Democratic South", the states of the Old Confederacy quickly became a Republican stronghold after the landmark civil rights reforms of the 1960s, when it harnessed what came to be known as the "white backlash".

Barack Obama in front of the White House, Jan 2007
Just visiting for the time being
Since the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, it is no coincidence that every Democratic president has been a southerner: Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton; and, his disgruntled supporters would argue, Al Gore.

Given the vagaries of the Electoral College, successful presidential candidates need to pick up states in the south. And, on the Democratic side, only southern moderates have proved adept at doing so.

So the historical irony is that to become a "Black Man in the White House", Barack Obama will ultimately have to attract southern white support.

In this respect, his challenge evokes the title of another book, of which he is more intimately familiar: his most recent autobiography, The Audacity of Hope.

Nick Bryant is the author of The Bystander: John F Kennedy and the Struggle for Black Equality.

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