Barack Obama and the Land of Lincoln

Salon’s Edward McClelland has an excellent column about the demographics of Illinois and of Chicago in particular. His piece focuses specifically on Chicago’s “unique history of launching the careers of powerful black politicians” and explains why it’s no coincide that Barack Obama calls the city home.

The column is so compelling because it relies on historical narratives to explain why Chicago has propelled so many African-American pols, starting with former Rep. Oscar S. De Preist, who was the first black congressman since Reconstruction, to former Mayor Harold Washington to Obama himself.

McClelland argues that “Chicago became the political capital of black America” (a title I’d give to Martin Luther King’s Atlanta) partly because “Chicago was literally known as the promised land.” Hundreds of thousands of African-Americans bought one-way tickets north on the Illinois Central Railroad during the Great Migration. They relocated to Chicago’s South Side where they formed a powerful voting bloc.

Chicago is unique in the fact that it contains nearly half of statewide votes, but as McClelland notes, “Chicago can’t elect a senator by itself. Black candidates need support in downstate Illinois, which happens to be a region with a history of working out racial questions for the rest of the country.”

McClelland dives into Abraham Lincoln’s downstate legacy and his 1858 Senate battle against Stephen Douglas. I won’t spoil the article by revealing McClelland’s historical anecdotes, but I will suggest that you also read Jonathan Martin’s 2007 article “’08 Hopefuls With No Place To Call Home.”

In the Politico piece, Martin argues that Obama’s roots in Chicago are actually fairly weak and that he has little in common with the black folk who took the train from Mississippi during the Great Migration.

Compare the two articles and let me know what you think. Is Chicago the only town that could have produced Obama, or is Obama not the kind of candidate that produces? Either way, these are two great articles flush with historical insights and examples.

Race in Chicago (African-Americans coded in yellow)
Race in Chicago

1858 U.S. Senate Election in Illinois (Lincoln in red; Douglas in blue. Note — Senators were elected indirectly).1858 U.S. Senate Election in Illinois



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