Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President

Image of Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President
Release Date: 
October 11, 2010
Bloomsbury Press
Reviewed by: 

In Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President, Edward McClelland explores the early years of Obama’s life in Chicago and how those years influenced his life.

The question becomes: Is it just another Obama book?

Jerry Kellman had placed an ad in a magazine called Community Jobs. Kellman, who is white, was seeking an African American to fill the position of a community organizer to work on the southside of Chicago. Kellman flew to New York to meet Obama. Prior to meeting Kellman, Obama had tried to contact the Mayor Harold Washington Administration for a job, so coming to Chicago was already in his mind.

Kellman immediately offered Obama the job at a Lexington Avenue Coffeehouse in New York City. Chicago was the place of Barack Obama’s first job in Chicago as a community organizer in which he was paid $10,000 plus a car allowance. The organization that Kellman represented was the Developing Communities Project or simply DCP. Obama worked out of Holy Rosary Catholic Church in the Roseland community. This was the job famously derided by Rudy Giuliani and Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin at the GOP convention in 2008, as the church brags on its website.

The story of the book begins in a place that, as McClelland writes, is called Altgeld Gardens; it is known as “The Gardens” by older residences, “the G” by the young folk, and “Alligator Gardens” by the Chicago cops who patrol the beat. One thing is certain: It is a tough place to live.

Thus began Obama’s relationship with the city of Chicago. That is one of the strengths of this book: its coverage of the early years of Young Mr. Obama.

McClelland then leads us through those years with the DCP and how Obama connected with common people, as well as the contacts he made along the way, the battles he fought, and the frustrations he felt such as his Chicago City Hall fight over asbestos. McClelland dedicates an entire chapter on “Asbestos,” and it breaks new ground. It discusses how Obama uses Saul Allinsky-type tactics to garner attention for the problem of asbestos in The Gardens. Obama’s three years at DCP also show someone who was adept at grant writing.

The great learning experience of going from a young man born and raised in Hawaii who decided to attend college on the “mainland” to find himself. In Chicago, Obama indeed found himself and the author does a good job on taking us on that journey.

McClelland takes us through the decision to attend Harvard Law School but during those Harvard years, Obama managed to stay connected with his newfound home in Chicago. We learn of his election as President of the Harvard Law Review, which directly led to the beginning of writing his book, Dreams from My Father, which took almost four years to complete and publish. We also get a tour of Obama’s work on Project Vote! Where he learned the realities of political life in Chicago.

Then we get to Obama’s venture into politics when a Congressman, Mel Reynolds, was convicted in federal court, imprisoned, and resigned his seat. That left an opening because a state senator, Alice Palmer, was vying for the vacated Congressional seat. Palmer was defeated by Jesse Jackson Jr., and Palmer decided to run for her seat again. The book does a great job of clarifying some of the myths behind this story. Many interesting twists occurred for Obama when he ran for the seat, unopposed, and McClelland goes into much depth here.

McClelland goes on to tell the story of the 2000 Congressional race that Obama lost, a loss that led him to consider giving up politics. The defeat was devastating for Obama.

McClelland ends the book with the race that launched Obama onto the national scene: the 2004 United States Senate election. The story of the grassroots effort to win the Senate race is glaringly missing in this account. After all, Barack Obama is defined by the grassroots movement and its bottom-up organizing.

So the question was whether is this just another Obama book. The answer is no. The great strength of the book lies in it coverage of the early years. Obama’s work at DCP, Harvard Law School, Project Vote!; the contacts he made in those years and the relationships he develops—delving into all this breaks new biographical ground and will function as a solid foundation for future books on the subject.

The drop-off in the book are the chapters that cover the 2000 election and beyond. The story of those years is not yet complete, and McClelland’s book does not add much. The book is a must-read for all Obama political junkies who want to know more for it does significantly advance the historical record regarding his younger years.