When Barack Obama arrived in Chicago from New York City, in 1985, one of his goals was to connect with the African-American community. And one of the ways he did that was by studying the civil rights movements, in particular the life story of Martin Luther King Jr.
It was a story far removed from his own personal experience. Obama had been a boy during the 1960s, and he’d grown up in a white family in Hawaii, which was not only a diverse and tolerant state, but also far removed from the disruptions of that decade. As an organizer with the Developing Communities Project, one of Obama’s tasks was recruiting churches to join the organization. One of the first pastors he met was the Rev. Alvin Love of Lilydale First Baptist Church, who became a lifelong supporter and adviser.
Love’s African-American experience was everything Obama’s wasn’t: He had been born in Chicago but moved back to Mississippi in the early 1960s, as the civil rights movement was approaching its violent climax, and returned to Chicago just in time for the riots after King’s assassination. Obama wanted to hear all about it.
“It was clear he was trying to connect with the African-American community,” Love said. “He was intrigued by the civil rights movement. The first time we spoke, he said, ‘I know you’re wondering about this funny accent.’ What he really was talking about was his name. He said, ‘My father is from Kenya and my mother is from Kansas.’ He’d say, ‘Some folks call me Yo Mama. Some folks call me Alabama.’”
Obama worked long hours and spent most of his free time reading. The book that made the most profound impression on him was Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63
, which is both a biography of King and a history of the civil rights movement. When Obama’s boss, Jerry Kellman, told the young organizer he admired the book, Obama replied, “That’s my story.”
Obama’s admiration for King also played a role in his spiritual development. Obama had grown up unchurched, with a mother who was skeptical of organized religion. But not only was he part of a church-based community organization, which began and ended each meeting with a prayer, he was learning the role the black church had played in securing equal rights for its parishioners.
“I saw Barack as being inspired by the civil rights movement, which was so intertwined with the black church that you couldn’t separate it. So Barack was in the position of needing to get to know the church, but it wasn’t that he didn’t have any religious underpinnings. He’d been inspired by black ministers.”
It would lead Obama to join a church for the first time in his life -- Trinity United Church of Christ. Although, as he would find out years later, his new pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, was no Martin Luther King.