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Memorandum to Sen. Obama: How to Run

by Randal Maurice Jelks on Feb 20, 2007

Senator Obama, I surely wish Harold Washington were alive to give you wise counsel, now that your candidacy for the Democratic Party’s nomination is official. Washington’s successful Chicago mayoral campaign in 1983 offers valuable lessons that still make sense.

The first is the importance of getting out the vote. When Washington was asked to run for mayor he challenged supporters to get voters registered. He realized that if he were to become the city’s first African American elected mayor he would need a ground swell of support.

Washington calculated that he would face bigotry and he did. Although you have been labeled a post-civil rights politician, you will face bigotry too. Pay close attention to Harold Ford Jr.’s 2006 race for the Senate in Tennessee. Even though the vote was close, his defeat is a stark reminder what first-time African-American candidates may face at the polls, especially in the South.

To reach the most elevated political office in the United States will require you to be a movement leader. Your bid to be president must mobilize a base so that in the end it looks more like the last days of the 1965 March on Selma than an ordinary political campaign. Every first among African-American elected officials, including Washington’s mayoral bid, has required movement- style politics.

Another lesson from the Washington campaign is to be fearless! Washington ran as a progressive in the era of Ronald Reagan. Neo-conservatism was gaining momentum but Washington did not back away from his political agenda. He called for transparency in the city’s budget and saw the need to build its educational infrastructure. He promoted the concerns of working people as being at the top of his agenda. He was unequivocal in campaigning for an unabashedly liberal plan.

Finally, Washington did not get rattled by the race question. In Chicago in the early 1980s his candidacy was racially divisive. He had to have 95 percent of African-American voters to win the general election against his Republican opponent. The irony of this was that Chicago’s voters were overwhelmingly Democratic!

Yet he managed to keep his dignity and promoted policies that benefited all the city’s citizens. Your candidacy, unlike his, is positively different. Your senatorial election in Illinois powerfully demonstrates the distance that the people of Chicago have come since Washington’s election. Like it or not, though, the racial dimension of your candidacy will be a constant. Take good notes from the past, Senator, as you go forth trying to make history.

Randal Maurice Jelks is an associate professor of history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich., and a writer for the History News Service. He is writing a book on one of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s mentors, Benjamin Elijah Mays.