As the Obama presidency came to an end this week and with it, Barack Obama’s tenure as the nation’s first black president, a group of Minnesotans reflected on his legacy and the power of his inspiration to African-Americans.
He gave hope to people who needed it, they said, and fulfilled long-held dreams of a black man in the White House while serving as a steadfast role model.
“I tell you I really don’t have words to describe how proud I am,” said the Rev. Steve Daniels, of Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in St. Paul. “I never thought I would see a black president in the White House, and to witness that, and to witness two terms of that, it is like — man,” he said before pausing. “Everything we went through and everything we suffered was worth it because he was a good president.”
It would be difficult for children today to know of the racial animosities when Daniels was growing up, but in his home state of Mississippi, he saw his family dodge Klansmen’s firecrackers. President Obama was born in 1961, a year marked by racial violence, including mob attacks on Freedom Rider buses in the South and a widely publicized trial of activists who attempted to integrate a Florida airport restaurant.
The Civil Rights Act was passed three years later, but it would be more than a generation before Obama would break through the nation’s political ceiling.
Ward Beavers, 50, of Maple Grove boarded a packed bus from the Kwanzaa Community Church in north Minneapolis to attend Obama’s inauguration in 2009. The bus drove through the night before arriving in Washington, D.C., where Beavers, braving below-freezing temperatures, squeezed into the throng of some 1.8 million people on the national mall. He remembers people climbing light poles to get a better look at the incoming president.
Beavers said that when he was younger, he was often told that if he worked hard, he could one day become president. At the time, he believed it was impossible.
“Everybody is going to miss him,” he said of Obama, “and wondering what we have in store for us after he leaves.”
For others, Obama’s example made it possible for them to pursue their own dreams.
“Obama gave me a feeling that I was able to make a difference in politics,” said Sarah Catherine Walker, a lobbyist at the State Capitol.
Even outside the U.S., in places like Zambia, where Walker was born, Obama “gave hope for democratic reforms all across Africa,” she said.
Walker praised Obama for his work on criminal justice reform, citing national sentencing guidelines and his appointments of people such as Eric Holder, the former attorney general. And it was Obama’s signature health care law, the Affordable Care Act, that enabled Walker to strike out on her own as an independent contractor.
“It fundamentally changed my feeling about my life and my security about my own health,” said Walker, who has lupus.
Walker’s memories of Obama date to 2004, when the junior senator from Illinois addressed the delegates at the Democratic National Convention.
“I remember turning to my mother and saying, ‘He’s going to be the next president,’ ” she said.
While Obama faced criticism from some who thought he would do more for communities of color, others say he became a powerful role model for their children.
“In a society where so many African-American boys are told ‘I can’t,’ or ‘You won’t,’ President Obama has dispelled that myth forever,” said Andre Dukes, director of instruction and curriculum at the Northside Achievement Zone.
As Obama campaigned in 2008, Dukes watched with his son, their hopes slowly rising with Obama’s political fortunes. His son, Andre “Scooter” Dukes, is now 13, and wants to serve his community.
“He has just looked at life differently and knows there is nothing that is impossible in terms of what he is capable of doing,” said Dukes.
“His daughters are roughly the same age as my sons,” said Kevin Lindsey, Minnesota’s commissioner of human rights, “so seeing him be in the spotlight, it was clear to everyone watching how much of a loving partnership he has with the first lady, Michelle, and how close the daughters are.
“For young African-Americans, to see that the leader of our country is an African-American and instills within them a pride and the ability to strive and achieve, it just can’t be taken for granted how significant that is.”
Melvin Carter III, a St. Paul mayoral candidate, keeps a street art portrait of Obama in his house with a quote that reads, “In the face of impossible odds, people who love their country can change it.” He bought the bright green and red painting from an eccentric street vendor during the Democratic National Convention in Colorado in 2008. Carter said the quote rings true with the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump on Friday.
“We started this week with Martin Luther King Day which was important to me as a reminder that folks have faced bigotry and threats before,” he said. “None of this is really new.”
Carter spent much of 2008 door knocking with his 2-year-old daughter as a volunteer on Obama’s campaign.
“He has inspired a whole lot of people into public service to push their public service harder and higher,” he said. “And I am certainly one of those people.”
Carter points to Obama’s Promise Neighborhood grant as part of his Minnesota legacy. St. Paul was selected as one of 21 communities to take part in the grant program, an initiative supporting low-income students and families.
“He really understands the challenges we are facing in St. Paul and the challenges that people [of color] face,” he said.
Josie Johnson, 86, a community organizer and educator who has been a civil rights activist since her teenage years, prayed for Obama daily. She said she e-mailed him a “thank you” letter last week to let him know how proud she was of him and his performance, despite the lack of support from Congress.
“In spite of all that was done to him in his eight years,” she said, “he was a positive force for all of us.”
Johnson has fought long and hard but she has hope that the children will continue the fight. “I have great faith in our children,” she said. “We as a people, as African-American adults, must turn our full attention to saving our children.”
Asante Samuels, 17, watched Obama’s farewell address last week from her home in north Minneapolis.
Eight years ago, Samuels and her family traveled to Washington, D.C., to watch him deliver his inauguration address.
Samuels’ family keeps a photo of Obama alongside their family photos. She said Obama inspired her to not let history be her limitation, but her inspiration to break limitations.
The DeLaSalle High School junior, who is a member of Gov. Mark Dayton’s Young Women’s Cabinet, said she got emotional seeing the president deliver his final address.
“I felt like a relative was visiting and they were going home,” she said.