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Melissa Harris-Lacewell Urges Obama to Draw on Political Rhetoric of African American Women Like Hamer, Chisholm & Jordan

StoryAugust 28, 2008
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The Democratic Party is preparing to pay tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King today ahead of Barack Obama’s nomination speech. While Obama is expected to reference King’s speech tonight, one of his longtime supporters is urging him to also draw on the political rhetoric of African American women, including Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Barbara Jordan and Shirley Chisholm. We speak with Melissa Harris-Lacewell. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.


The Democratic Party is preparing to pay tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King today, ahead of Barack Obama’s nomination speech. Forty-five years ago today, King led the march on Washington and delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Two of King’s children, the Reverend Bernice King and Martin Luther King III, will be honored at Invesco Field tonight, as will Congress member John Lewis, who spoke at the original march.

While Barack Obama is expected to reference King’s speech tonight, one of his longtime supporters is urging him to also draw on the political rhetoric of African American women, including Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker and Barbara Jordan and Shirley Chisholm.

In a recent piece in The Nation magazine titled “Obama and the Sisters,” Melissa Harris-Lacewell describes these women as the lost prophets of American democracy. Harris-Lacewell writes, “The Obama candidacy is built on the organizational foundation laid by these women at least as much as it is on the oratorical showmanship of black male preachers.”

Melissa Harris-Lacewell is an associate professor of Politics and African American Studies at Princeton University. She is a contributing writer at TheRoot.com. She’s finishing her new book, Sister Citizen: A Text for Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Politics When Being Strong Isn’t Enough.

She joins us here in our Free Speech TV studios in Denver. Welcome.


AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Talk about these women and this historical moment today. You’ve been a longtime supporter of Barack Obama.

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: I have been. And, you know, part of what was at the center of the primary candidacy between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama was this question about African American women: would they support Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, because she was a woman, or would they support Barack Obama’s candidacy, because he was African American?

And ultimately, what that sort of general media question failed to do was to recognize that African American women, all by themselves, have a political history and structure, a way of approaching what it means to be a citizen in the United States that doesn’t rely exclusively on the history of white women or of black men.

So, what I’m encouraging Barack Obama to do tonight — and I hope that he will — is to invoke this history of black women who have, in fact, laid the foundation that he now stands on.

AMY GOODMAN: I don’t know if Hillary Clinton read your piece, but I want to play for you a part of Senator Clinton’s speech on the convention floor on Tuesday night.

    SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: This is the story of America, of women and men who defy the odds and never give up. So how do we give this country back to them? By following the example of a brave New Yorker, a woman who risked her life to bring slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad. On that path to freedom, Harriet Tubman had one piece of advice: If you hear the dogs, keep going; if you see the torches in the woods, keep going; if they’re shouting after you, keep going; don’t ever stop; keep going; if you want a taste of freedom, keep going.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you surprised?

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: I wasn’t. I was pleased, and distressed. So, I was pleased to hear Harriet Tubman’s name invoked in that moment, that moment of history, where she had talked a great deal about white women’s suffrage, for her to also bring in the history of an African American woman who was a patriot.

But I’m also a little distressed, because part of the reason that I suggested Barack Obama choose women like Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer, women of the late twentieth century, is because, unfortunately, Harriet Tubman is a little too easy. We have all agreed as a society that slavery was wrong and that the desire to escape and to move out of slavery was clearly a heroic act. Part of what women like Fannie Lou Hamer and Shirley Chisholm do, is they challenge us in our moment right now. They ask us to question some things about how we operate as a democracy in this moment.

So, I was certainly pleased to see a black woman, particularly someone like Harriet Tubman, invoked, but, again, it’s too easy. I want to see the hard work done of bringing back in black women’s stories. Harriet Tubman was not the last person who was such a leader.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk about some of these women —-


AMY GOODMAN: —- who you see as the great models.

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: I mean, Ella Baker is probably my most favorite, although certainly also Ida B. Wells at the turn of the century, who led our country against lynching. In fact, the NAACP ultimately picked up Ida B. Wells’s entire strategy against lynching and pressed the anti-lynching — the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill in the Senate.

But Ella Baker is such a nice foil in this moment, because Ella Baker had a hard time getting Martin Luther King to listen to her strategic choices. I mean, Ella Baker laid the groundwork for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, for the SCLC, which we think of as King’s organization. She was involved with the NAACP.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain who she was.

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Oh, so Ella Baker is an African American — first of all, everyone should read Barbara Ransby’s book about Ella Baker, which returns her really to public discourse. She’s an African American woman who, again, was a community activist and organizer, was brought up in a family of organizers, and was not a speechmaker. Instead, she was someone who believed, as Barack has at least said, that we are the people that we’ve been waiting for. So she would go into these local communities and lay the groundwork of structure, where ordinary people were doing the work of naming their own problems, as well as pursuing their own solutions.

And she was consistently silenced by Martin King. She was consistently marginalized by the male preachers of the Civil Rights Movement. Most of us don’t remember Ella Baker’s name, even though we benefit from her work. And so, I think it’s important to invoke and bring her back in a moment when we’re going to celebrate, rightfully, Dr. King, to also recognize these invisible women, because then that tells me that Barack Obama really is interested in not just being a charismatic leader, but empowering a broader democratic worldview.

AMY GOODMAN: Fannie Lou Hamer?

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Fannie Lou Hamer, who was herself a sharecropper and the last of eighteen children, she was the founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which came to the convention and said, “You can —-

AMY GOODMAN: This was 1964, Atlantic City?

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: In 1964. And said, “You cannot seat the all-white Mississippi delegation, because to do so would erase the reality of black people throughout the South.” So they formed a separate party, and she came and talked about the fact that she and other women had been beaten and tortured simply for trying to vote. One of the most enduring lines that we remember from Fannie Lou Hamer is her telling us that she was sick and tired of being sick and tired. In other words, she was ready to be an activist. So, again, here’s a woman who was an older woman. She was a poor woman. She was always interested in the intersection between class and race.

AMY GOODMAN: Clearly, Lyndon Baines Johnson was nervous about her, right? She was giving a major address -— was it before the Democratic Credentials Committee, and all the media was there?

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: That’s right. That’s exactly right.

AMY GOODMAN: And then Lyndon Johnson gave a separate speech, so that the media would pull away from Fannie Lou Hamer?

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Yes, that’s exactly right. And ultimately, Martin King brokered the deal with LBJ to seat the convention — excuse me, to seat the Mississippi delegation and made some other concessions, but in a way that, again, really made Fannie Lou Hamer and the women and men that she brought with her feel that the overall Civil Rights Movement had sold out the interests of the poorest and the most vulnerable that the movement was meant to help. So, again, invoking her helps us to remember that even the Civil Rights Movement was not a moment of pure unity of race, that there was always these questions of class and of gender that complicated the racial movements in America.

AMY GOODMAN: There’s a wonderful mural of women in Brooklyn, New York, and the centerpiece is Shirley Chisholm.

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: That’s right. Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman to run for the American presidency and in 1972 declared that she was neither the candidate of black interests nor the candidate of women’s interests, but that she was a legitimate candidate for the American presidency, who, in her body and in her interests, certainly encompassed that of African Americans and of women, but had a sort of universal story to tell about the need to bring in young people as voters. Remember, this was just after young people got the right to vote, the first presidential election after that. So she, like Barack Obama, was relying on trying to mobilize this new group of voters for — sort of a new way of thinking about politics.

AMY GOODMAN: Barbara Jordan.

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Oh, Barbara Jordan. The keynote address, which I am completely convinced Barack Obama brought his 2004 keynote address out of. She is the first legislator from Texas, African American woman, to sit in the US House of Representatives. Her speech about why we should, as a matter of constitutional law, remove and impeach President Nixon remains sort of one of the most clear-headed articulations of why the Constitution matters. She was a huge figure who died much too young but, in her convention speech, brought this sense of collectivity, unity, but also speaking from her particularity as a black woman as a way of talking about the universal American experience.

AMY GOODMAN: I don’t know — was it Molly Ivins who said, if there was a casting call for the role of God, Molly Ivins would get the part?

As we wrap up, Melissa Harris-Lacewell, this is a historic day. Barack Obama will accept the nomination at Invesco Field at Mile High Stadium here in Denver. There have been a number of changes in Barack Obama’s position. AT&T sponsors this convention, among a number of corporations —-


AMY GOODMAN: —- at the Pepsi Center. And that was one company that he really benefited when he voted for granting retroactive immunity to the corporations. Your concerns and your — and why you’re supporting him now? And you have like thirty seconds.

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Yeah, well, the key is that I support Barack Obama for the US presidency. That does not mean I think that Barack Obama is the be-all and end-all of American politics. We have got to follow the leadership of these African American women and continue to press over and against anybody who we support. Being a supporter means that I get to be the prophetic critic on the other side of the Obama administration.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you very much Melissa Harris-Lacewell.

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