|Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., poses for a picture with Harvard Law School professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr., who met the senator 20 years ago. Ogletree is happy to see the gifts he admired two decades ago in Obama now delivered to and appreciated by the entire country. (KC Bailey photo)
On Tuesday morning, I had the honor of standing in the voting booth and casting my vote for Barack Obama. It brought my mind back to 20 years ago, when I first met him in September of 1988 on the campus of Harvard Law School, where I was and still am a professor.
What profound satisfaction I feel to finally see that the very gifts that I admired two decades ago in a skinny first-year law student with a funny name have been delivered to and appreciated by our grand nation. What a journey it has been.
Back in 1988, Barack was known first and foremost, as I noted, as a skinny first-year student with a strange name. From the moment I met him, though, I was impressed, and I was not alone. He navigated the classroom with the best and the brightest. And he controlled the floor of the basketball court, too.
And then there was Michelle Obama (née Robinson), whom I first got to know in 1985, when she was a student here. Both Michelle and Barack were serious scholars, and both of them were on a mission. To see them side-by-side now, working as a team, seems the most natural thing in the world.
Michelle, I had known, had made a promise to her father, a union man who did not go to college, that she and her brother Craig would make themselves examples of his fortitude and character. Michelle Robinson kept her promise. By the time I met her on the campus of Harvard Law School, she’d already graduated from Princeton.
I watched her work hard in the classroom, constantly holding herself to high expectations and surpassing them. She also volunteered as a student attorney with the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, where she represented indigent clients in the Commonwealth. It was here, I imagine, that she grew to appreciate the meaning of assisting people in need. The same values Michelle displayed 23 years ago are evident in her commitment and good judgment in 2008.
Barack made history by becoming the first African American president of the Harvard Law Review. He also represented fairness and a willingness to collaborate among his colleagues. He convinced people who were far to the left and far to the right that he would treat them equally and with respect. Under his tenure, he ensured that no one would be excluded because of their political persuasions. It was his calm demeanor, sound judgment and sober, careful thinking that made him such a popular force at Harvard Law School.
After graduating Harvard Law School with honors, Barack had the opportunity, as the president of the Harvard Law Review, to clerk for the United States Supreme Court. He had the option of making a six-figure salary at a prestigious law firm. He did neither. Before even enrolling at Harvard, he had made up his mind on where he would go after it was over: He would return to Chicago and continue his work as a community organizer.
I was impressed by the resolve he showed in sticking to that commitment, which I’d heard him talk about since his first year. The willingness to sacrifice for others, even as classmates all around him were choosing an easier course, revealed something deep and true about Barack Obama’s strength of character.
I believe Barack Obama will be America’s first African American president. This is not just our national treasure; it is a global treasure. From Kingston, Jamaica, to Johannesburg, South Africa, to Nairobi, Kenya, to Caracas, Venezuela, to London, England, people will celebrate the election of Barack Obama. He will bring together the world’s powers to ensure peace, and yet he will be prepared and able, if necessary, to fight to protect our security.
The things that will set Barack Obama apart from other leaders are exactly the qualities I saw in him at Harvard Law School. He is a collaborator, possessed of the strength and judgment to surround himself with the best thinkers and hardest-working people in our society. He will never sacrifice his core values, but reason and intelligence will win out over ideology.
The lines of people waiting to vote were remarkable, both on Tuesday and in early voting. Eight years ago, African Americans in Jacksonville, Fla., watched as their ballots went uncounted. Just last week, I watched them stand in line to cast early ballots and ensure their votes would be counted. Now, eight years later, I could see the difference in their faces.
I talked with Florida A&M University students who had marched with faculty and staff from their school to the courthouse, where they voted early. I heard the cheers of people in Miami who were heading out early to vote. The same phenomenon swept across Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Ohio and other parts of the country.
I even got a call from my 6-year-old granddaughter Marquelle, who reported, “Papa, we voted!” Although she, her 4-year-old sister Nia Mae, and her 9-month-old sister Jamila could not vote, they were there with their father Charles III and mother Rochelle to witness history.
As we think about Barack Obama and the challenges he faces going forward, his top priorities of course will be to ensure a sensible policy on national security and to make sure that we address the problems of the economy. At the same time, we will also have to be very thoughtful about his ability to govern in a way that might challenge those of us who have a more progressive view of the election.
We will have to make sure we respect the fact that President Obama may not move as quickly on things we find important, and he may also occasionally disappoint us by not embracing an agenda that we deem more progressive and urgent. By running as a Democrat and soliciting the support of independents and Republicans, President Obama will ensure an inclusive and participatory government. He will call on us to sacrifice, to be patient, and yet to have a firm commitment that government can serve the interests of the people in ways it never has before.
Ultimately, we should be profoundly thankful that we can each be part of this most historic moment in what is still a great democracy. Barack Obama has done more than change the way many people look at politics. His election may very well change the way America sees itself and how the rest of the world sees us, too.
Charles J. Ogletree Jr. is the Jesse Climenko Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the founding and executive director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice.