- Salim Muwakkil
senior editor of In These Times and contributing columnist to the Chicago Tribune.
The Democrats opened their four-day convention on Monday with thousands of delegates, party elders and lobbyists flooding the halls of the Pepsi Center in downtown Denver. Headlining the opening day was Michelle Obama, who delivered the final address of the night before a cheering crowd on the convention floor. We play highlights and speak with Salim Muwakkil, senior editor of In These Times. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting live from Denver, where the Democrats opened their four-day convention Monday. Thousands of delegates, party elders and lobbyists flooded the halls of the Pepsi Center to take part in the political theater that’s the quadrennial national convention.
Headlining the opening day was Michelle Obama. She delivered the final address of the night before a cheering crowd on the convention floor. Earlier in the evening, Senator Ted Kennedy received a standing ovation as he took to the stage. The elder statesman of Massachusetts has largely remained out of the public eye after being diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor earlier this year. In his speech, Kennedy declared, “The work begins anew, the hope arises again, and the dream lives on,” an invocation of his parting remarks to the 1980 convention, when he ceded the presidential nomination to Jimmy Carter.
Carter also made his own appearance at the convention earlier in the day, but this year’s planners only allocated the former president a pre-taped video message and a brief walk onstage to wave to the crowd with his wife. The New York Observer called it "an awkward acknowledgment for one of only two Democrats to win a presidential election since 1964."
But all eyes were on Michelle Obama, who delivered the keynote address of the night. In her prime-time remarks, she spoke about her relationship with Barack Obama and his days as a community organizer in Chicago.
MICHELLE OBAMA: And as our friendship grew, and I learned more about Barack, he introduced me to work — the work that he’d done when he first moved to Chicago after college. You see, instead of going to Wall Street, Barack went to work in neighborhoods that had been devastated by the closing of steel plants. Jobs dried up.
And Barack Obama was invited back to speak to people from those neighborhoods about how to rebuild their community. And the people gathered there together that day were ordinary folks doing the best they could to build a good life. See, they were parents trying to get by from paycheck to paycheck, grandparents trying to get it together on a fixed income, men frustrated that they couldn’t support their families after jobs had disappeared. You see, those folks weren’t asking for a handout or a shortcut. See, they were ready to work. They wanted to contribute. They believed, like you and I believe, that America should be a place where you can make it if you try.
And Barack stood up that day, and he spoke words that have stayed with me ever since. He talked about the world as it is and the world as it should be. And he said that, all too often, we accept the distance between the two, and we settle for the world as it is, even when it doesn’t reflect our values and aspirations.
But he reminded us that we also know what the world should look like. He said we know what fairness and justice and opportunity look like. And he urged us to believe in ourselves, to find the strength within ourselves to strive for the world as it should be. And isn’t that the great American story?
It’s the story of men and women gathered in churches and union halls, in high school gyms, and people who stood up and marched and risked everything they had, refusing to settle, determined to mold our future into the shape of our ideals. And it’s because of their will and determination that this week we celebrate two anniversaries: the eighty-eighth anniversary of women winning the right to vote and the forty-fifth anniversary — and the forty-fifth anniversary of that hot summer day when Dr. King lifted our sights and our hearts with his dream for our nation.
AMY GOODMAN: Michelle Obama delivering the keynote address on the first day of the Democratic convention here in Denver.
For more, we turn to Salim Muwakkil. He’s senior editor of In These Times, a contributing columnist to the Chicago Tribune. He joins us on the phone from Chicago, where Michelle and Barack Obama have lived for years.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Salim. Let us begin with you giving us the biography of Michelle Robinson, now Michelle Obama.
SALIM MUWAKKIL: Good morning, Amy. Glad to talk to you again. Well, you know, Michelle is really a product of the South Side of Chicago. She — the kind of residential middle class that’s really pretty heavily represented in this city. She went to school in Chicago at a pretty well-regarded elementary school. Then she went to Whitney Young, which is like a magnet school in the city. It really attracts some of the best students. And she, you know, kind of distinguished herself there, and from there she went to Princeton and then on to Harvard.
And when she got out of school — and I think she was imbued with this notion that, you know, when you gain college training, you come back to the community and attempt to improve that particular community — she came back. She started with a, you know, big-time law firm in Chicago, Sidley & Austin, which, although it is a big corporate firm, it has a lot of pretty committed and community active attorneys. Newton Minow was one of them. He’s a former FCC chairman and has always been a pretty helpful presence for African American aspirants in various ways. And I think he spotted something in Michelle and kind of nurtured her a bit.
And then she — you know, she didn’t remain at Sidley & Austin, and she went to the City of Chicago. She started working there under the Daley administration. And ironically, I think she was recruited by former members of the Harold Washington administration, in particular a guy named Judson Miner, who really plays a very large role in making — in getting Barack Obama better known in the Chicago activist community, because those were Jud’s roots in the activist community. When Michelle started working with Daley, she began to kind of introduce Barack to a lot of the political movers and shakers in the city. And her recommendation gave him entree, because of her roots and activist credentials.
And then she started working for Public Allies, which was an organization really that had just recently started. And it was informed by the policies of a guy named Jody Kretzmann and John McKnight, who — I’ve been working with Jody for a long time, and he is an excellent community activist with a theoretical bent that focuses on assets. He goes to communities, and rather than look at the deficits of the community, he maps out the assets — him and John McKnight, their program that they started at Northwestern University. They map out the assets of the community and find ways to strengthen and embolden and reinforce those assets.
And so, they hired Michelle. She became one of the first — I think the first executive director of Public Allies. And they do a magnificent job in hooking in promising college students into nonprofit organizations that are community-oriented and then — you know, and empowering work — attempting to empower parts of the community. And she really excelled there. A lot of people couldn’t understand why she would bring all those credentials, Harvard and Princeton, to such a lowly or community-oriented group, when she had such potential to make a lot of money in the corporate structure. And she really performed well at Public Allies.
And Public Allies is really a great group that hadn’t received much credit for what it does, and that’s why it’s another good and positive aspect of Michelle’s presence in the limelight. She shines a light on those kinds of organizations, which have been really working very hard in a stalwart way to better Chicago’s communities.
And I really got involved or became aware of Michelle through a former student of mine. I was a teacher at Columbia College in Chicago, and I had a student who told me about this very active and powerful sister who was working with Public Allies or who — no, who was —- at the time, she was with the Daley administration.
But also, she stressed her husband, that was this guy named Barack Obama, who could bring a lot to community organizing, who could bring a lot to doing -— you know, empowering the Chicago black community, which was still in a kind of a state of shock after the death, the sudden death, of Harold Washington. A lot of black people had invested so much in his campaign and in his tenure. When he died, it was really a vacuum of power in the black community, of political power. And Barack was seen as someone who could help replenish and rebuild that kind of political heft.
And he — you know, he was anointed in many ways by Alice Palmer, who was a very progressive state senator, who also had connections to the network that Michelle was involved with with Public Allies and Northwestern University. And so, that’s really my experience and knowledge of Michelle.
AMY GOODMAN: And then she moved on to the University of Chicago.
SALIM MUWAKKIL: And then she moved on to the University of Chicago. Her job there was really to try to — you know, the University of Chicago has always had contentious relationships with many black communities in its vicinity, and, you know, people had looked at it as this imperious and then kind of imperialistic force on the South Side. And Michelle’s job was to kind of moderate that image of the University of Chicago and also to make it much more community active and to give it a better and more productive role in Chicago’s black South Side, which she did well.
AMY GOODMAN: And we’re talking to Salim Muwakkil, senior editor of In These Times. What did you think of her speech last night, Salim?
SALIM MUWAKKIL: I thought it — you know, it hit all the bases. It had the hit. I mean, it really demonstrates how astute those speech writers are, because they knew exactly what the American people wanted from her. And she nailed it. She nailed it. And she did it in a natural way. It looked like, you know, I mean, it was coming from her heart, and much of it absolutely was. She was speaking from what she felt.
You know, of course, she had to be a lot less strident, or, let us say, she had to hoe down whatever criticisms she may have had of what’s going on in the country in order to present this overwhelmingly positive image, which is, I guess, what conventions are for. And in fact, it was the job of that night to humanize Michelle, to make her more family-friendly, because there have been these scurrilous rumors out here about her. And I think she went a long way in dispelling those rumors.
AMY GOODMAN: Salim Muwakkil, she was introduced by her brother, Craig Robinson, who was a coach at Brown University, now at Oregon State.
SALIM MUWAKKIL: Yeah. Well, you know, they — the trajectory that lifted them out of the South Side kept Craig, I guess, kind of away from what was going on. You know, I didn’t even — I didn’t know Craig. I knew she had a brother, but obviously he was engaged in athletic pursuits and other things, and so he wasn’t as much of a presence as Michelle. But she spoke of him fondly. And I think that he also made a very good impression last night. A lot of people like the athlete and the scholar athlete, and I think he kind of embodied that.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Salim Muwakkil, at the top of our headlines, we read the story of an alleged plot on the life of Barack Obama, that Denver authorities have arrested several men — CBS4 is reporting this — caught with either drugs or weapons, arresting them at a routine traffic stop, one of them finding a scope, two rifles, ammunition, walkie-talkies, another man arrested after he jumped out the sixth floor hotel window. They’re believed to be, perhaps —- one of them wearing a swastika -— thought to have ties to white supremacist groups. Your comment?
SALIM MUWAKKIL: Yeah, those are — that really embodies the fears that many, many people have about the campaign of Barack Obama. I think that is probably the most oft-repeated fear that I hear in the communities that I work in, is that we fear for this brother. It’s already almost unimaginable that an African American has reached these heights. And that alone — you know, that rare situation focuses the attention of these white supremacist groups in a way that it hasn’t been focused before. And you hear a lot of these spokesmen talk about the increase in the membership of these groups and how they are trying to use the Obama campaign as a spur to membership.
And so, it was really only a matter of time before some evidence of a concerted effort to get Brother Barack off the scene became revealed. And I’m glad that the authorities kind of nipped this in the bud. But it also should caution us to remember that there are many, many haters out here, and they will do whatever they can. And so, we have to be extremely vigilant about protecting Obama.
AMY GOODMAN: Salim Muwakkil, I want to thank you for being with us, senior editor of In These Times, contributing columnist to the Chicago Tribune. Of course, Barack Obama, himself, will be giving his acceptance address on Thursday night. It will be the forty-fifth anniversary of Dr. King’s "I Have a Dream" speech that he gave on the Mall in Washington, D.C.