"To understand the fervent pride of now, one has to take a hard look back at the divisive politics of then." — Cash Michaels, Obama in NC
Cash Michaels' film, Obama in NC: The Path to History, begins not surprisingly with the buses rolling from Raleigh to Washington, D.C., for the inauguration of the nation's first African-American president. The unexpected thing is how poignant that event, so spectacular then, looks in light of the 19 months of acrimony to which Obama and his presidency have been subjected.
It's no surprise, either, that Michaels introduced the film when it screened this summer at the Galaxy Cinema in Cary, part of a series sponsored by the Great Schools in Wake Coalition (GSIW). In the battle over the future of the Wake County school system, the coalition is pro-diversity. So is Michaels. The Triangle's foremost black journalist, he's indefatigable in covering the black community for the black community in the black-owned press. Generally even-tempered and widely liked, he's openly disdainful, however, when asked to address the all-white school board majority's anti-diversity arguments.
"This is pure power politics," Michaels snaps. "Don't believe a word they say."
In his three decades as a journalist, the 54-year-old Michaels has written for newspapers, taken photos, hosted radio programs and worked as a radio and TV commentator on stations here and in New York. Long before journalism schools started teaching "backpack journalism" (to carry your notebook, camera, recorder, computer and wireless transmitter), he was the prototype of the multitalented multimedia journalist.
For Obama in NC, his first film, he is the writer, photographer, videographer and—in his well-modulated radio voice—the narrator of what is, as he says at the outset, a personal story as well as a campaign story.
So it's no surprise at all that he's front and center in it when the story starts. He belongs there.
But it was surprising, or apparently so, that the coalition launched its series with Obama in NC rather than, for example, the iconic To Kill a Mockingbird, which was shown a few weeks later. Beyond a surface relationship—black president elected, white school board majority elected a year later—it was unclear what lesson Michaels' campaign saga could hold for the pro-diversity side in Wake. After all, his film was finished before the Wake schools fight erupted.
It was surprising, that is, until a few minutes into the film when Obama in NC took a sweeping U-turn into the past—setting the campaign aside to deal with first things first. As Michaels delights in saying, "You're invited to a campaign film and suddenly history breaks out."
It's the history of racism in North Carolina and the heroic struggles against it since Reconstruction, powerfully depicted and climaxing—but not for almost two hours—with Obama's election. A central struggle in the mid-20th century is whether Raleigh's schools would be integrated or segregated. In North Carolina, the South's "education state" (that was Martin Luther King's term, according to his friend the Rev. Dr. David Forbes, then a student at Shaw University), nothing could be more important to the future—or more relevant to today.
At the film's end, the GSIW audience stood clapping, cheering and hearing a clear message about their own cause.
"The message is, our history matters," said Lynn Edmonds, a pro-diversity activist. "When you understand the history, the struggles to bring our citizens to a common and moral ground," said Yevonne Brannon, the coalition's leader, "it makes it clear why it's important to fight this fight in Wake County, and why winning it is an historical imperative."
Michaels was only dimly aware of North Carolina's history when he was covering Obama. That's because, though it may seem that he was born reporting the news here, he grew up and began his working career in Brooklyn, N.Y. Like many of us, he knew something about the 1898 Wilmington Riots, the 1960 Greensboro sit-ins, the Ku Klux Klan. What he didn't know, but learned after he followed some friends' advice to add a bit of "historical context" to what was intended to be a campaign film, is how these events and others bled into a racist stain as deep as any Southern state's, one North Carolina has covered over but will not soon expunge.
Set against this North Carolina history, Obama's victories here—in the Democratic primary over Hillary Clinton and then, by an eyelash, over Republican John McCain in November 2008—become both more incredible than you may have thought (especially if you're white) and less a breakthrough than a milestone on the tortuous trail of black history, in which every step forward was followed by white backlash.
Obama's victory was so incredible to blacks, Michaels says, that no one in the black community foresaw—nor will anyone say now that they did—that Obama would be elected, let alone that he would carry North Carolina. "You won't find an African-American alive," he says, smiling and offering a friendly wager on it, "who said that a black male would be elected president before I hit my grave. Not one of us."
As for the backlash, Michaels adds, it's everywhere and it's growing. It's in the way Michele Obama's been pilloried for being stylish while vacationing in Spain (contrast this with how Jackie Kennedy was idolized for charming the French, he says). It's in the right-wing mockery of Barack Obama's name, birthplace, religion and alleged radicalism.
"Which only proves," Michaels says, "what history teaches, that all things are cyclical."
"Seeing a black family in the White House is something that some people simply cannot take," Michaels says. "What was 1898 about in Wilmington? 'We don't want to be under Negro rule.' Well, what is the Tea Party about in 2010? 'We don't want to be under Negro rule.'"
The backlash is present in the Wake schools battle too, he says, where the issue boils down today—as it did in 1956—to: "We have schools for you. We have schools for us."
In that vein, Obama in NC is prescient in dramatizing the battle over school integration in Raleigh a half-century ago—a struggle that lasted well into the 1970s—as pivotal in the state's progress, pitting liberal educators, clergy and the NAACP against conservatives like the onetime Raleigh broadcaster, and later senator, Jesse Helms.
There's a line in the film spoken in Raleigh in 1988 by Coretta Scott King, Dr. King's widow. Mrs. King was here because North Carolina had finally adopted MLK's birthday as a state holiday, surmounting the backlash against integration fomented by, among others, Sen. Helms.
North Carolina's action showed, Mrs. King said with a wry smile, "that we are not helpless, and the situation is not hopeless."
The Great Schools in Wake crowd took note: For some, it's their unofficial motto.
It seems preordained that a film about Obama in North Carolina would come from Cash Michaels—or CashWorks HD, as he aptly named his new media enterprise.
Michaels came on a bus from New York to Durham in 1981—he didn't know how to drive then—to take a job with the now-defunct WSRC-AM. He's been on the Triangle newsbeat ever since, working as principal reporter at The Carolinian, a twice-weekly newspaper serving the African-American community in Raleigh, since 1986 and its editor since 1993. For a quarter-century, he's covered every major story in the black community, from Jesse Jackson's presidential campaigns to the Duke lacrosse case. (When Jackson announced for president in 1988 at the Raleigh Civic Center, Michaels also covered it for WLLE-AM, and he also recorded Bill Cosby for a Jackson ad that ran on the station—a couple of seconds from it are in the film.)
"He's a committed journalist and a role model for the community," says Calla Wright, a civic leader who heads the Coalition of Concerned Citizens for African-American Children and is a faithful Carolinian reader. "I think he does a great job of keeping us informed and helping the community stay involved and engaged."
So there was never a question whether he would cover the Obama campaign closely, win or lose. And early on, Michaels anticipated what most North Carolina journalists didn't, that if Hillary Clinton, the odds-on favorite, failed to wrap up the Democratic nomination in Iowa and New Hampshire, she might find herself battling with Obama for black voters starting with the South Carolina primary in January and lasting, perhaps, until North Carolina's primary, the final big-state contest, in May.
At the outset, Clinton was ahead among black Democrats, based on her husband's record as president and the fact that blacks didn't think an African-American candidate could win. Michaels, though, had his ear to the ground, and he knew that the Obama campaign was targeting the black vote here, with emissaries like former NAACP President Kwame Mfume making regular forays into North Carolina a year ahead of time. Clinton, meanwhile, seemed to overlook the possibility that the nomination might still be in play when North Carolina voted.
Sure enough, Obama and Clinton split Iowa and New Hampshire, and they fought it out in a bruising battle in South Carolina, with Obama prevailing. Suddenly, Clinton was behind in the race, and it was clear that she couldn't win the nomination without North Carolina.
From that point on, Michaels recalls, "this thing was coming at me like a freight train. The first female president? The first African-American president? But the Rev. [Jeremiah] Wright thing was killing Obama. It was exciting," he says. "You couldn't make this stuff up!"
Race was now the central issue. The Rev. Wright, Obama's pastor in Chicago, had damned America for its racism, and Obama walked a tightrope, declaring himself "outraged" by Wright in a speech in Winston-Salem but also delivering a memorable speech in Philadelphia—at the National Constitution Center—carefully explaining why black folks may see a more troubling American history than whites.
With black voters coming to the polls in droves, Obama clinched the nomination in North Carolina and then, campaigning hard here in the fall, came from behind to take the state by 14,000 votes over John McCain.
All of which Michaels captured in a rich mix of his own video, still pictures and recorded interviews with, among others, Barack and Michele Obama, Hillary Clinton, former Gov. Jim Hunt and, yes, Kwame Mfume, supplemented by TV news clips.
Better still, Michaels captured how the campaign felt in the black neighborhoods of Raleigh, particularly as Obama was closing in on the nomination to the jubilation—and disbelief—of African-Americans like Hubert Poole. At 82, an emotional Poole had seen enough that, though he was working for Obama on primary day, he was unable to express a prediction except "if" Obama won, how wonderful that would be.
When Obama was elected, Grady Bussey was among the campaign volunteers who traveled to Washington for the inauguration and were trapped for hours in the huge throngs and painful, subfreezing weather. He wouldn't have missed it, he told Michaels. Seeing a president who looked like him, "it made me realize how wonderful it was for me to be an American," Bussey said. "And it planted a seed, because when I got home, my children were like, 'Dad, I'm going to be president'—and they can be."
Michaels, too, was in Washington for the inauguration, with his wife, Markita, and their 5-year-old daughter, Kala. It was a bittersweet time, though, for as the three traveled to Washington by bus, Michaels' mother died in a Chatham County rest home after a long illness. His mother, Michaels says, was the biggest influence in his life, raising him by herself to be strong enough that he's never used drugs, never smoked a cigarette, rarely drinks and always tries to follow her advice: "If there's something you don't want to do, and it seems stupid, don't do it."
He and Markita considered coming home but decided that his mother would've wanted Kala, who was at Cash's side (with her Mickey Mouse camera) for so many campaign events, to be there for the swearing-in.
As shown in the film, they stay and watch from the Washington Monument as Obama takes the oath at the Capitol, miles away. Three million people stand between them and the president. But they are part of history. "Extraordinary," Michaels calls it.
By Inauguration Day, however, Michaels already knew that his understanding of the Obama in NC story was incomplete. Interviewing the Rev. Forbes, the civil rights organizer at Shaw University a half-century ago, about the impact of Obama's victory, Forbes had mentioned the Kirk-Holden War of 1868. Did Michaels know about that?
No, he didn't. Nor did he know—really know—about the Wilmington Riots and how they marked the violent end of the Fusion movement in North Carolina, relegating blacks to a subservient position that was, as the late black historian John Hope Franklin would tell Michaels, "in many ways worse than slavery."
That's when Michaels decided that his campaign film wouldn't do, and he set out to learn the truth about North Carolina and what it meant for Obama to win "in NC."
What he found belied North Carolina's image as a "moderate" Southern state. It is, rather, a state that was as thoroughly, virulently racist as any, for as long as any, but one more capable of redemption, perhaps, because it was, as Dr. King had said, "the education state" of the South.
That complex history, carefully researched and powerfully depicted, is what makes Michaels' story about Obama's election so dramatic for audiences two years later. Why? Because, says Michaels, even people who grew up in North Carolina have little grasp of what Obama overcame. "I'm shocked to find that people don't know the history," he says. "I was shocked that I didn't know it."
The fulcrum of this history, the Wilmington Riots, is related in the film with the help of Irving Joyner, the N.C. Central University law professor and vice chairman of a state commission that investigated those events a century later, issuing its report in 2006.
In 1898, Wilmington was North Carolina's biggest, richest city, the state capital in all but name. The government there, as in much of the eastern part of the state, was led by a coalition of black freedmen, people of mixed race like Alex Manly, who owned the Wilmington Daily Record and was the grandson of a former white governor, and white Republicans.
The riots consisted of ex-Confederate soldiers and Ku Klux Klansmen who, with the support of the white business aristocracy in Raleigh and white Democrats who controlled state government, destroyed Manly's newspaper, burned black businesses to the ground and ran the elected city government out of town at gunpoint—the only armed coup d'etat in U.S. history.
The Wilmington coup culminated a long period of violent struggle in North Carolina after the Civil War between white supremacists and those who recognized the rights of blacks. One of the latter was Gov. William Holden, who sent a militia into Alamance and Caswell counties in 1868 to root out the Ku Klux Klan. The backlash against Holden and Col. Kirk's militia led to the supremacists winning control of the General Assembly, and they promptly impeached Holden and removed him from office—the first time in U.S. history that a governor was ousted.
After Wilmington, Joyner tells Michaels, for the next 50 years blacks in North Carolina—most of whom were small tenant farmers dependent on white landowners—were afraid to challenge Jim Crow. Instead, they accepted a second-class existence while trying to build their own, separate educational and business institutions. It's because of Wilmington, Joyner said, that North Carolina may seem to have been more moderate in the 20th century than its Deep South neighbors. But that wasn't the case.
"North Carolina was as bad," Joyner says. "It wasn't as violent."
It wasn't until the mid-1950s that a new generation of black students and civil rights activists were far enough removed from the memory of Wilmington to challenge the power structure. With Forbes' help, Michaels tells the story of the early sit-ins, including the 1957 sit-in at the Royal Ice Cream shop in Durham—three years prior to the now-famous Greensboro sit-ins at Woolworth—and the efforts after the '54 Brown decision to integrate the Raleigh school system.
Gov. Luther Hodges is shown declaring on TV in 1956 that he is "unalterably opposed [to]mixing the races in schools." That year, Raleigh rebuffs the efforts of a black family to enroll their son, Joe Holt, at the all-white Daniels Middle School, close to their home in the historically black Oberlin neighborhood. He's bused instead to all-black Ligon, across town in Southeast Raleigh. Only in 1960 is the first black student, 7-year-old William Campbell, the future mayor of Atlanta, admitted to a white Raleigh school.
The fight over integrating the Raleigh schools doesn't truly subside until they're merged with the Wake school system in 1976. At that point, "busing"—or busin'—is a fighting word, not for blacks but for conservative whites like Helms who still think Gov. Hodges was right about "mixing."
The struggle for black equality continues in Obama in NC through the bombing of the black-owned Wilmington Journal, for which Michaels also writes, in 1973, and the Greensboro Massacre in 1979, which saw Klan sympathizers gun down five civil rights activists. Jesse Jackson's presidential campaigns in the '80s presage Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt's two runs for Helms' U.S. Senate seat in 1990 and '96. Gantt's campaigns, of course, presaged Obama's.
Michaels' diligent archiving helps bring this history to life. There's a young Barack Obama, wearing a Gantt for Senate T-shirt. There's retired U.S. Air Force Col. Joe Holt. There's Helms, snarling as he was wont to do, and an older Gantt, all smiles because of Obama's election. There's Gov. Holden's grave in Raleigh's Oakwood Cemetery. "You're making a film about Barack Obama," Michaels remembers his wife asking him at one point, "and the governor from 1868 is in it?"
One great find was a recording of an early Obama speech in New York in which he talks about George Henry White, the black North Carolinian who served in Congress until 1901—the last African-American congressman from this state for 80 years. It's used as voice-over as images of the Wilmington riots are shown. "This, Mr. Chairman, is perhaps the Negro's temporary farewell from the American Congress," Obama quotes from White's valedictory speech. "But let me say that, phoenix-like, he will rise up some day and come again."
What strikes Michaels the most, he says, is the courage of the young civil rights protesters like Forbes, which finally allowed North Carolina to break from its past. They protested, Michaels says, not because they expected to bring down segregation—though they hoped to hasten its end—but rather because they refused any longer to endure it lying down.
"Once you entertain [the idea] that at the worst we'd be dead," Forbes tells Michaels in the film, "in a lot of ways we were dead. As second-class citizens, we did not have life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
Michaels' goal with Obama in NC wasn't to make a polemic about the Wake schools controversy—and it isn't. Actually, he says, he didn't have any audience in mind when he started, except his family and friends. Still, he's pleased that the finished film "speaks very much" to the debates, not just here but across the country, about the resegregation trend in the schools.
In that regard, he thinks the message for today's activists is what it was for Forbes' generation. "The civil rights movement was about chastising the nation for limiting itself" by curtailing opportunities for blacks, women and gays, he says. Today's leaders, too, must refuse to be limited and spell out exactly what they want for the schools, whether they think they can get it or not.
One problem he sees, Michaels says, is that there's "tremendous pressure" on black leaders in Raleigh to cut a deal with the school board majority so the schools issue can be put to rest. The pressure is coming from the business community, which recognizes the damage being done to Raleigh's "progressive" image.
From the school board, he hears Chairman Ron Margiotta and his fellow majority members insisting that they're open to talks and don't intend to create a segregated school system. "It's a ploy," Michaels declares heatedly. "The thing you do is—you don't believe a word they say. Force their hand out in the open."
If that's done, Michaels argues, it will show that their plan for assignment zones will inevitably create high-poverty schools in Southeast Raleigh. "And then they'll hold the people in those [high-poverty] neighborhoods responsible for the damage."
And yes, he's heard Bill Randall, the black Republican candidate for Congress in the 13th District (Rep. Brad Miller's seat), tell him that Southeast Raleigh shouldn't be "sending their kids to other neighborhoods to get them straightened out." Randall says Raleigh's black neighborhoods should take charge of their own kids—and schools.
Michaels' response? "That is so ignorant, it isn't funny." The problem isn't control of schools, he says. It's control of resources—money. Split the Wake system into zones, and some zones will have plenty of resources, but some won't. It's a replay of the '50s debate, he says. "The segregationists said, 'We've always grown up separately. And it works.' Today, pretty much the same thing."
On the plus side, he sees white and black leaders coming together to fight resegregation, reversing a years-long slide in Raleigh away from the old biracial coalition-building that marked the civil rights era.
They also have "a powerful voice of integrity" in the Rev. William Barber, state president of the NAACP, Michaels says. He's biased: "Bill Barber" is family to him and delivered the eulogy at his mother's funeral, he adds as "full disclosure."
The two are close. They talk frequently. Barber understands that he's in a power struggle with Margiotta and his allies in the Republican Party, Michaels says. "And the only time anyone wants to sit down with you is when they think you're losing power."
As for his own role, Michaels remembers that a CBS reporter, interviewing him about the Duke lacrosse case, introduced him as "activist and journalist." He had it right, Michaels says.
"My biases are up front," he says. "Everything I do is for the black community. That's who I work for. Does that mean I don't do things fairly, that I'm not professional? No, of course not."
But in the black community, he says, "when you're visible, and you have a position that speaks to issues, it's extraordinarily hard to say, 'Look, I'm just an observer here.'"
Rather, "you're expected to have a role in finding the solutions."
Knowing North Carolina's history, he says, the solution for Wake's schools is obvious: All schools must be excellent; to be excellent, they all must be diverse.
That's his perspective as a reporter in historically black Southeast Raleigh. It's also his perspective from Cary, where he's lived since marrying Markita eight years ago and joining her there. He drives Kala to school in Cary and is proud of the schools there. He also sees kids arriving on the buses from Southeast Raleigh. "When I see these kids come off, black and Latino, and I know they're getting the same good education my daughter is, that to me is important. That's something I want to fight for."