President Obama's First Act of Political Activism Was For Divestment
I was one of thousands of people glued to the television this past Tuesday, watching President Obama’s first Climate Address to the nation. An hour before I was surrounded by 100 young voters who had converged at Georgetown University in support of the President, chanting “Yes We Can; Comprehensive Climate Plan” and “No Pipelines, No Coal, Keep the Tar Sands in the Soil”
After the motorcade passed us by and the President was getting ready to speak, we broke to huddle around a small table in a coffee shop with my team at EAC. We were hanging on to every word but the most exciting moment for me was when President Obama said, “Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices. Invest. Divest. Remind folks there’s no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth.”
We knew it was a tip of the President’s hat to our fossil fuel divestment movement, currently active at over 300 campuses. But what we discovered is that those two simple words were evocative of something deeper and more meaningful to our president – of the first time he took action for social justice.
Three decades ago, the movement that caught fire with thousands of students on hundreds of campuses nationwide was divestment from the human rights crisis of apartheid in South Africa. On February 18, 1981, during President Obama’s sophomore year at Occidental College in LA, he organized and spoke at a rally demanding divestment from apartheid and racial equality at the majority-white campus.
“My first act of political activism was when I was at Occidental College,” President Obama said Thursday at a news conference during his visit to Dakar, Senegal on Thursday, referring to speaking at the rally. “I got involved in the anti-apartheid movement back in 1979-80 because I was inspired by what was taking place in South Africa.”
His speech started the rally (pictured above) and introduced South African Activist Tim Ngubeni of the Black Consciousness Movement. His opening line was, “We call this rally today to bring attention to Occidental’s investment in South Africa and Occidental’s lack of investment in multicultural education.” Obama told the crowd that although South Africa’s racial struggles were “happening an ocean away,” it was “a struggle that touches each and every one of us.”
At the end of his speech he was carried away by two students pretending to be oppressive Afrikaners. In “Dreams from My Father” he reflected upon the experience, saying “I really wanted to stay up there. I had so much more to say.”
32 years later, the young activist has transformed into the groundbreaking President that just pledged to reject the Keystone XL Pipeline and cap carbon emissions from power plants. His enthusiastic endorsement of nuclear and fracked gas shows that our movement still has work to do to ensure Obama’s legacy will be one of courageous leadership for climate justice. But we will keep pushing and appeal to the young revolutionary within the pragmatist politician he has become.
Just three decades ago he was a passionate student fighting for justice, part of the history of our collective struggle, one of us. And our movement can help him remember that he still is.