As the nation’s first Black President prepares to be nominated for a second term in Charlotte at the Democratic National Convention, it is worth reflecting on the trajectory that put a relatively unknown Chicagoan, by way of Hawaii, to make it to the White House.
While the nation’s collective memory recalls 1984 and the Democratic gathering in San Francisco as a seminal moment in barrier-breaking when Rev. Jesse Jackson boldly mounted a campaign for the party’s presidential nomination, it was not the first such effort. The civil rights leader’s run just four years later, more polished and focused, and threatening the nomination of eventual party standard-bearer Michael Dukakis, likewise was monumental but must stand in line in the accounting of historical moments. As must the courageous effort in 1972 of Rep. Shirley Chisholm, the “unbought and unbossed” congresswoman from Brooklyn, and the first Black woman elected to Congress who boldly claimed her candidacy for the presidency; challenging the white male hegemony of presidential politics.
Before them all was a Black minister, an activist from Washington, DC who arrived in Chicago during the Democrats’ tumultuous convention in 1968 and saw his name thrust onto the national scene.
Even by today’s standards, 1968 was one of the most memorable years in modern history. The nation was being turned upside down by the Vietnam War and a youthful generation was challenging the status quo in ways not seen before in this country. Everything from attire, music and sexual mores were turned upside down and protest was in the air in cities and on college campuses across America. The battle lines were drawn between youth and “the establishment,” and as hard as young people pushed, the status quo pushed back harder. Perhaps no time harder than the eventual election of Richard Nixon to the presidency, the Cold War, “law and order” Republican who personified the America the establishment desperately wanted to “save.”
Beneath the generation-gap were the remnants of a civil rights struggle that just a scant four years earlier had resulted in the monumental Civil Rights Act and one year later the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Those two historic laws were passed in the shadow of the tragic assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the elevation of a southerner, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, to the presidency. And in an unlikely scenario, the Texan Johnson would preside over the greatest period of social progress for African-Americans since Reconstruction. Forward momentum would be short-lived, as the conflict in Vietnam, and the assassinations of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968 and Senator Robert Kennedy two months later would send the nation in a tailspin. King’s message of peaceful, nonviolent coexistence would be supplanted by a more militant voice demanding immediate change coming from young Blacks in the form of the Black Panther Party and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and a host of splinter groups. As America’s cities were going up in flames in the aftermath of King’s killing in Memphis, so was the re-election chances of President Johnson and he eventually announced he would not seek a second term.
In 1968 the race for the White House was wide open and when Democrats arrived in Chicago, the names most known to delegates were Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern and Hubert Humphrey; but dissension was on the minds of many as the convention turned into a literal slugfest between protesters and Mayor Richard Daley’s city police force. So, it should have been no surprise that the spirit on the streets outside of the convention hall would permeate the official proceedings. Emotions were running high as delegates loyal to the favored slain fallen son, Bobby Kennedy, was not willing to abandon the progressive vision the late President’s brother had preached during his campaign. After all, the New York senator had been killed right after a monumental victory in the California primary and was building momentum toward a convention showdown in Chicago. Just four years earlier Senator Kennedy had been received warmly in Atlantic City when delegated stood in a rousing ovation as he addressed the convention to introduce a film in tribute to his late brother, President Kennedy.
So, it was not unlikely that other names would be thrown into nomination at a convention that was unconventional. But few expected that the name of an African-American would be heard in the cacophony of a boisterous convention. Though Frederick Douglass did receive votes at the Republican convention in 1888, his name was not formally advanced into a nomination. The name of Rev. Channing E. Phillips, however, did elevate to that official declaration on the floor in Chicago as the delegation from the District of Columbia put his name in nomination. It was a historic first that today goes unrecognized and overlooked as an important link in the chain of events that would lead to the nomination and election of Barack Obama forty years later.
Rev. Phillips, a native of Brooklyn, had been the head of Senator Kennedy’s campaign in the nation’s capital. At the time he was president of the Housing Development Corporation, a government backed entity. Rev. Phillips also served as pastor of Lincoln Temple United Church of Christ in Washington, DC. A true progressive, the son of a Baptist minister, Phillips was a staunch supporter of home-rule for the District, an issue that decades later still resonates among the city’s residents. In Chicago, remaining loyal to Senator Kennedy’s vision, Rev. Phillips allowed the District’s delegation to put his name in nomination as a favorite-son candidate. He received 67 ½ votes and made history, as he indicated that “the Negro vote must not be taken for granted.”