'Negro President Possible In Next 25 Years: King.'
So declared a headline in the Chicago Defender, America's largest black-owned newspaper, on Christmas Eve 1964. The article reported on an interview by civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., recorded by the British Broadcasting Company earlier in December. King had been asked to comment on a statement by Senator-Elect Robert F. Kennedy of New York to the effect that it might be possible to elect an African American president within 40 years.
"I've seen levels of compliance with the civil rights bill and changes that have been most surprising," King had responded, according to the United Press International wire story, which also ran in the Washington Post and the Chicago Daily News. "So, on the basis of this, I think we may be able to get a Negro president in less than 40 years. I would think that this could come in 25 years or less."
Of course, Kennedy turned out to be closer to the mark: this past week, almost 44 years after King's statement, Barack Obama became the first African American presidential nominee of a major U.S. political party.
Even in less auspicious times than the 1960s, some Americans dreamed of becoming the first black president. Historian John Hope Franklin told the Washington Post in June that when he was six years old, in 1921, his mother had said to him, "When people ask you what you're going to be when you grow up, tell them you're going to be the first Negro president of the United States." Franklin said he "worked up the courage to say it a few times." But it seemed implausible that such a thing could actually happen in his lifetime.
King might be forgiven his optimism at the close of 1964. Only recently, it was the door to the president's cabinet, not the Oval Office, that was the threshold of progress: in a March 1963 article, the lesbian writer and activist Barbara Gittings remarked, "Some 50 years ago, a president of the U.S. came close to being impeached because he invited a Negro to a White House breakfast. Today, appointment of a Negro to the president's Cabinet met only a slight delaying action." The August 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where King delivered the 'I Have a Dream' speech, ushered in a year of profound change in which he attended the ceremony where President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, his movement's greatest legislative success. At the time of the BBC interview at the end of 1964, King was stopping over in London en route to Oslo to collect his Nobel Peace Prize.
What's more, Johnson had just been reelected in a landslide that was widely interpreted as an endorsement of a domestic agenda that included further civil rights measures and programs to alleviate the poverty and joblessness of America's inner-city slums. As Rick Perlstein points out in his recent book Nixonland, a New York Times headline following the November election captured the incredible possibilities of the moment: 'White Backlash Doesn't Develop.'
By the late 1980s, 25 years after King's statement, that white backlash was in full swing. Ronald Reagan had crafted the image of the "welfare queen," stirring white resentment and promoting an agenda of cutting taxes and slashing services. In 1988 the Republican nominee, George Bush, aired the now-infamous 'Willie Horton' ad, smearing Democrat Michael Dukakis and playing on the century-old image of sexually aggressive black men.
To be sure, there were critical signs of progress in the past quarter century. Massachusetts had elected Edward Brooke, the first black senator since Reconstruction. Beginning with Cleveland in 1967, many big American cities had elected African American mayors. In 1983, the House and Senate had passed a bill creating a federal holiday in honor of King, over the objections of a small minority that included Arizona's John McCain. (By 1989, McCain had flip-flopped on his state's observance of Martin Luther King Day, but said he was "still opposed" to the federal holiday.) Most importantly, the Democratic Party had seen the insurgent presidential campaign of a black candidate, King's former colleague Jesse Jackson, as well as the nomination of a woman for the vice presidency.
This year, as the whole world knows, the Democratic presidential primary has brought the nation thrillingly close to smashing longstanding barriers of both race and gender. For its part the Republican Party has adopted a rhetoric of colorblindness, and will soon nominate a woman candidate for vice president, albeit one who opposes most of the policy agenda of the major national women's rights groups.
When King accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, of course, he was far more controversial among America's white majority than today's political leaders tend to acknowledge. At a November 18 press conference, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had called him "the most notorious liar in the country" and "one of the lowest characters in the country." King graciously requested a meeting with him upon his return to Washington. And in Oslo, he spoke with remarkable optimism. "I accept this award," he said, "with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind."