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Obama, Barack(1961–) - Politician, Chicago and Politics, Chronology, Enters U.S. Senate Race

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Barack Obama appeared on the national political ’ scene in 2004 and brought with him a renewed sense of unity and focus regarding the needs of all Americans and in particular African Americans. Steeped in a complex racial history, Obama embraces all those aspects of mixed race origins which influence who he is, while being fully aware of the blessings and challenges that come with his heritage. He wrote his autobiography which was prompted by his selection as the first African American editor of the Harvard Law Review . A community activist, he served as an Illinois State senator for seven years, and later as the only African American senator in the 109th United States Congress. His skillful speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention and his call for all Americans to unite brought speculations about his national political future. Some envisioned him as the first African American U.S. president.

Barack Hussein Obama was born on August 4, 1961, at the Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu. His parents, Ann Dunham and Barack Hussein Obama Sr., met as students at the University of Hawaii at Mano. Ann Dunham was from Wichita, Kansas, and a descendent of Jefferson Davis, the only president of the Confederate States of America, while Barack Hussein Obama was from Kenya, Africa with family ties to the Luo tribe. Obama Jr. was an only child. The family began to deteriorate when the elder Obama won a scholarship to Harvard to earn a Ph.D. Since the funding was not enough to support his family, he had to go alone. After completing his Ph.D. the elder Obama returned to Kenya and took a job as an economic planner for the country’s government. The couple determined it was best to divorce. The elder Obama continued to write to his son and remarried, adding more siblings to share the family name. He came to see his son only once, before he died in an automobile accident in Kenya in 1982. On an extended holiday when Obama was ten, his father briefly shared his life.

In the years after his parents’ divorce, Obama and his mother remained in Honolulu. Even though his grandparents did not cater to racist ideas and sought to protect him, Obama still chose to call himself Barry. His given name Barack means “blessed” in Swahili, but he chose a name that would allow him to fit in. In an environment of only seven or eight African American students in his school, this was important. Obama, in his autobiography Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance , writes about being puzzled by his grandparents’ resistance to racism. He was simply told by his grandmother, “your grandfather and I just figured we should treat people decently, Bar. That’s all.” Their mid-western small-town values had a direct affect on the person he was to become. Although their openness secured him in many ways, he came to understand himself as a person of mixed heritage. In 1967 when Obama was six years old, his mother remarried and the family moved to Djakarta, Indonesia. She married an Indonesian oil company executive and Maya Soetoro-Ng, Obama’s half sister, was born. When Obama was ten, he returned to Honolulu where he had better educational opportunities. He earned a place at Punahou School, a very prestigious school, and initially lived with his grandparents. He later lived with his mother and sister once they returned to Honolulu. Obama’s teenage years were troubled because of his confused sense of identity. He experimented with drugs and gave more attention to basketball and bodysurfing than to academics. He was a black man within the school’s small minority population, and the expectations regarding his success were low. As he stated in his memoirs, Dreams from My Father , people were quite satisfied that he did not move or speak too loudly, “Such a pleasant surprise to find a well-mannered young black man who didn’t seem angry.” In spite of obstacles, Obama graduated from high school with honors.

As a young adult Obama moved to the mainland. For two years he attended Occidental College in Los Angeles, then transferred to Columbia University. From Hawaii to Columbia, Obama found that racial tension infected the environment. By this time he came to know that activism was the way to effect change. He graduated in 1983 from Columbia University in political science with specialization in international relations. He spent a year in the financial sector, while writing letters to community service organizations all over the United States, asking what he could do to help. Obama moved to Chicago and went to work with a church-based group that focused on the city’s economically troubled neighborhoods. He became a community organizer in the Alt-geld Gardens housing project on the south side of Chicago. Various experiences caused a change in his thinking and he became a Christian. Obama joined the Trinity United Church of Christ.

Next, Obama enrolled at Harvard Law School, where he became the first African American editor of the student-run academic journal Harvard Law Review in 1990. This honor is bestowed on a law student who demonstrates exceptional academic abilities, excellent writing and editing skills, and strong leadership qualities. As a result of this work Obama was offered a publishing deal for a book about his life, which was to include optimistic messages regarding the racial situation in the United States. After graduating from Harvard Law School, magna cum laude, in 1991, Obama wrote his autobiography, which was published in 1995 and re-released in 2004. Also in 1992 while working in a corporate law firm, Obama met Michelle Robinson, a Harvard Law student from Chicago. Robinson, who also graduated from Harvard Law school, and Obama were married in 1992.

Chicago and Politics

Passing up an opportunity from a top Chicago law firm, Obama decided to practice civil rights law with the small public-interest law firm Miner, Barnhill and Galland. He also became a lecturer of constitutional law at the University of Chicago. Continuing his role as activist, Obama took on the management of a statewide voter registration drive as director of the Illinois Project VOTE. The aggressive organizational plan that Obama helped develop was effective in registering over 100,000 voters. The result aided in the election of Democratic President Bill Clinton and Senator Carol Mosely Braun.

In 1996 Obama stepped into the political ring. His goals were clear as he turned down a chance to apply for a tenure-track teaching position at the University of Chicago. Obama, who identifies himself as an African American, ran for Illinois state senator from Hyde Park, the thirteenth legislative district. His work in the community and his role as a professor and civil rights lawyer set the tone for a successful election. As state senator, he served as chairman of the Public Health and Welfare Committee, passed bills to increase funding for AIDS prevention and care, and introduced legislation to curb racial profiling. Working-class people and those issues that impact the quality of their lives were key concerns for Obama.



Born in Honolulu, Hawaii on August 4

1967 Moves to Djakarta, Indonesia with family

1971 Returns to Honolulu to live with grandparents and later mother; attends prestigious Punahou Academy

1982 Travels to Kenya because of father’s death

1983 Receives B.A. from Columbia University in political science with specialization in international relations

1985 Moves to Chicago as community activist

1991 Graduates magna cum laude from Harvard Law School; becomes first African American editor of Harvard Law Review ; returns to Chicago; accepts position as senior lecturer at University of Chicago Law School in constitutional law; practices law at Miner, Barnhill and Galland

1992 Marries Michelle Robinson

1995 Publishes autobiography, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance

1996–2003 Elected to Illinois State Senate from south side Hyde Park neighborhood

2000 Makes unsuccessful run in Democratic primary for First Congressional District

2004 Elected to United States Senate for Illinois; gives keynote address at Democratic National Convention in Boston; autobiography is reprinted

In 2000 Obama ran unsuccessfully for the first Congressional district against incumbent Bobby Rush, a former Black Panther. Criticism regarding Obama during his unsuccessful run centered on his biracial background and his having been too associated with the ivy league (in essence, not black enough). His autobiography is the source for these comments from the community. He hoped his book would show the process of self-awareness and the fact that mistakes and challenges can be overcome. Obama continued in the role of state senator until 2004. The debate on his background subsided and the stage was set for future political opportunities to aid the African American community and the community at large.

Enters U.S. Senate Race

The seat for United States senator from Illinois was vacated by Peter Fitzgerald in 2004 and Obama decided to run. He was supported by South Side residents as well as Bobby Rush. In spite of early competition from Danny Hynes, a favored Democrat, and Blair Hull, who personally spent $29 million on his campaign, Obama won the Democratic primary with an outright majority of 53 percent. His victory was attributed to volunteers, his coalition of white Chicago voters, and other supporters in the state. The Republican Party had fervently tried to find a candidate to run again Obama. They needed someone to meet political scrutiny and withstand the growing appeal of Obama. In a last effort to locate such a candidate, Alan Keyes, a former ambassador and African American conservative residing in Maryland, was chosen. Keyes was in trouble from the start as he first had to establish residency. He had recently criticized former First Lady Hilary Clinton for having to establish residency in order to run in the New York primary. Keyes also alienated both parties as well as voters by making politically incorrect statements. Hypocrisy, radical statements, and extreme positions promoted by Keyes fueled the almost frantic campaign in favor of Obama. In an election that was surrounded by false starts, candidate withdrawals, and questions of other candidates’ integrity, Obama stood heads above the confusion with name recognition and a clear connection to Illinois voters. With a landslide victory of 70 percent of the votes, Obama became the third African American to be elected in the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction and the fifth African American to be elected in U.S. history. Obama also became the only African American senator in the 109th Congress.

Obama is a charismatic and forceful speaker, who captures the hearts and minds of Americans of diverse racial and social backgrounds. His campaign was so successful that he was invited to give the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, Massachusetts. Obama became the third African American to provide the convention speech. Time called Obama’s speech, “one of the best in convention history,” and Obama told Ebony all he was trying to do was to “tell the stories of the hopes, fears, and struggles of what ordinary people are going through every day.” His ability to connect with the voters and exert a sense of healing for the racial divide in the United States sets Obama apart as one politician who truly represents the people.

Obama’s journey is one of self-discovery, empowerment, and confrontation with the U.S. promise to all of its citizens. In 2004 he signed a $1.9 million deal for three books, seizing the opportunity to again tell his story and his experiences. The first of three books, due out in 2006, was expected to include Obama’s political views. The second was expected to be a children’s book co-written by wife Michelle and the couple’s two daughters, Malia Ann and Natsha, with the proceeds to go to charity. The content of the third book was undetermined.

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