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Obama 1: The Man In The Background

In 1985, Barack Obama moved to Chicago, a city he didn’t know, hoping to create change. Just over two decades later, he would become the 44th president. This six-part podcast explores how that happened.

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Before he reached the national stage, a young Obama worked as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago. He was behind the scenes, working to bring jobs and better living conditions to struggling neighborhoods.

This would become his first introduction to Chicago’s rough-and-tumble politics, a path that would propel him to the Illinois State House, the nation’s Capitol, and eventually the White House.

This podcast, from the producers of Making Oprah, tells the story of one man’s meteoric rise to become the United States’ first African-American president.

Former President Barack Obama on how Chicago shaped his political career

Obama: Maybe a story like mine could have happened someplace else. My story couldn’t have happened anywhere else. The cultural pulse of the city, all these threads and elements, I think ended up feeding my conception of what politics could be, and nourishing it, and constantly testing it in ways I think would not have happened in other places.

I think that the traditions and spirits of community organizing and grassroots movements from the earliest days, from the fights against the Daley machine, combined with [Saul] Alinsky, combined with the civil rights activism that expressed itself with Dr. King when he came to Chicago, and ultimately Harold Washington.

Jerry Kellman, a community organizer who hired a young Obama. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)

Community organizer Jerry Kellman on Obama coming to Chicago

Kellman: I think once the opportunity was there, it seemed like a good thing to do. It’s a major city, major politics, major African-American community, but Barack had been trying for a number of months to get a community organizing job, but he didn’t get one. 

Rev. Alvin Love on first meeting Obama

Love: He gave me that now famous spiel: "My name is Obama. They call me ‘Alabama’ or ‘Yo Mama,’ but it’s Obama. You’re wondering where I got this strange accent from. My mother’s from Kansas and my dad’s from Kenya."

That shtick did not resonate with me at all. And I didn’t know at the time that that was his shtick until I heard it several times after that. As I look back on it, I think he did it more for his own nerves than he did to disarm people. He assumed that he was an outsider coming in.

Loretta Augustine-Herron holds a photo of her and Barack Obama when they were working as community organizers in Altgeld Gardens, a public housing project on Chicago's far South Side. (AP Photo/Tae-Gyun Kim)

Community activist Loretta Augustine-Herron on Obama becoming a community organizer

Augustine-Herron: We needed someone who could not only relate to us, but looked like us. We need more black leaders and in this project, we insist.

Community organizer Greg Galluzzo on Obama as a leader

Galluzzo: People on the South Side don’t think Barack did anything. I should have given the guy a raise. The people are not supposed to feel like they’re dependent on the organizer.

We yell, scream, and swear if we think the people are f--- up. But if there’s ever a meeting that an organizer organizes, you’d never know who the organizer was. Barack accepted that. His name wasn’t ever in the newspaper and he was not on the stage.

Kellman on the importance of Chicago to his former employee, Obama

Kellman: Chicago really is the centerpiece for so many reasons … he doesn’t become president if he doesn’t come to Chicago. I don’t think that would have ever happened.

Full list of people heard in this episode:

  • Former President Barack Obama
  • Loretta Augustine-Herron, community activist
  • Greg Galluzzo, community organizer   
  • Jerry Kellman, community organizer  
  • Mike Kruglik, community organizer
  • Rev. Alvin Love, Lilydale First Baptist Church
  • John McKnight, community organizer

These interview highlights have been edited for brevity and clarity by Bea Aldrich.

Join the conversation at #MakingObamaSubscribe for free on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen.

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