Obama’s Chicago

President Obama visits a Ford plant in Chicago. Image: Pete Sousa (White House)

By Laura Washington

He was the nobody that nobody sent.

Barack Obama’s choice of Chicago as his political and psychic home seems brilliant in retrospect. Yet in many ways, it was an unlikely launching pad for America’s first black president.

The authorLaura Washington was editor and publisher of the Chicago Reporter, an investigative monthly. She has won numerous journalism awards while covering politics, race and social justice. She is currently political analyst for ABC 7 Chicago and a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.


The big city in the nation’s heartland, Chicago has always played second string to the glittering coasts. Until Obama, it was best known as the home of mobsters, racial warfare, and hardball politics.

In 1985, Obama was drawn to Chicago by the progressive politics of Mayor Harold Washington, who’d won a hard-fought election to become the city’s first black mayor two years earlier. Washington’s victory blasted the Democratic Machine by bringing together a progressive coalition of blacks, Latinos, liberal whites, women and gays.

(Read more: The Heart of Black America)

Obama would test the tale told by Abner Mikva, the former congressman who would later become his mentor, of the ward boss who rejected Mikva’s offer to volunteer when he admitted he had no sponsor: “We don’t want nobody nobody sent,” the committeeman growled.

A memorial to victims of violence in Altgeld Gardens, site of Obama’s first organizing. Image: ZOI87 (CC by/sa)

Act one: organizer

But first the freshly-minted college graduate would dig into grassroots community organizing.

Obama learned the Alinsky way. In the 1930s, Saul Alinsky was a combative populist-intellectual who built a lasting brand of power out of Back of the Yards, a gritty, working class enclave on Chicago’s Southwest Side. In 1985 the young Obama became the first executive director of the Developing Communities Project, mobilizing citizens for change through local churches.

The group worked out of a bungalow in Roseland on the Far South Side on issues including asbestos removal at nearby Altgeld Gardens, a depressed public housing development. Today DCP continues to work on issues of environmental equity, including a 30-year fight for an extension of CTA’s Red Line to 130rd Street, the last area of the city unserved by rapid transit.

Obama spent only three years honing his organizing chops, but the experience lent abundant street cred for his presidential campaign mantra of “Change.”

University of Chicago. Image: Justin Kern (CC by/sa)

Act two: civic leader

After establishing his academic pedigree at Harvard Law School, Obama returned to Chicago and settled in Hyde Park. While Chicago remains one of America’s most segregated cities, Hyde Park was the integrated oasis for progressive intellectuals, activists and professionals, and home to the University of Chicago.

Obama was a lecturer at the university’s law school, wife Michelle later became a top executive at the university’s medical center, and their children attended its Lab School. Obama’s early political career was plotted at kitchen tables throughout the neighborhood.

In 1992, Obama ran Project Vote, a voter registration campaign that helped elect Carol Moseley Braun, the first African American woman in the U.S. Senate. The political work connected him to the city’s political elites, wealthy donors and political gurus like Mikva and David Axelrod.

Two years later, Obama co-founded the Lugenia Burns Hope Center, a leadership development and organizing institute in Bronzeville, the historic heart of black Chicago, nestled between Hyde Park and McCormick Place. A current Hope Center project is Housing Bronzeville, which is pushing the city to build affordable housing on the vast vacant tracts that dot the area.

Act three: politician

After winning election to the State Senate in 1996, Obama famously pushed bipartisanship, regularly reaching across the aisle to craft legislative compromises.

Attributed to Chicago artist Ray Noland. Image: Mr_CRO (CC by/nc/sa)

Chicago is the nation’s capital of the black middle class. Michelle Obama, whom he met while they worked together at a law firm, helped him maneuver that world. The South Side native and Harvard Law graduate connected her husband to prominent black professionals like Valerie Jarrett, now his closest White House confidante, forming a lucrative fundraising and support network.

Obama tapped into the black church, the community’s strongest institution, when he joined Trinity United Church of Christ on West 95th Street during his early years in Chicago. Rev. Jeremiah Wright preached a black liberation Christian theology that promoted social justice and activism – and generated controversy in the 2008 presidential campaign.

Wright has retired, but Trinity remains influential. In January, the church kicked off plans for Imani Village, a 27-acre community-based conglomerate of sustainable housing, urban farming, retail stores, health centers and a sports complex.

In 2002, his bond with the city’s white progressives brought Obama to a rally at the Federal Plaza downtown. At the protest, mounted by Chicagoans Against the War in Iraq, he delivered a speech that sealed his anti-war credentials, and another crucial plank in his presidential campaign.

Senator Obama campaigns for the Presidency, 2008. Image: Eric Allix Rogers (CC by/nc/sa)

Obama’s Hawaiian genes may have helped Obama surf the treacherous waters of regular, black and independent politics. His allies ranged from his “political Godfather,” now-retired State Senate President Emil Jones, a Machine stalwart; to progressive white and black independents like Mikva and Obama’s former alderman Toni Preckwinkle, now Cook County Board president; to black nationalists like Louis Farrakhan.

Like most every South Sider, Obama is an avowed White Sox fan. During the 2008 election, he mocked the rival Chicago Cubs and their pastoral Wrigley Field. “You go to Wrigley Field, you have a beer, beautiful people up there. People aren’t watching the game,” he told ESPN in 2008. “It’s not serious. White Sox, that’s baseball. South Side.”

Them’s fightin’ words in Chicago. During the weekend of the NATO Summit, the Cubs will take on the Sox — at Wrigley Field.

Next story: The Heart of Black America; Chicago Politics

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