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Article from the March 15, 1990 edition of Black Issues In Higher Education: Opening Another Door – The Saga of Harvard’s Barack H. Obama

“Nontraditional” is an apt description for Barack H. Obama, the first Black president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review.

“The fact that I’m Black makes me nontraditional,” he said. “My background is not typical of most of the members of the law review.”

The Harvard Law Review was founded in 1887 and is considered one of the most prestigious legal publications in the nation. Its alumni frequently become political and business leaders. Articles published in the review often are cited in judicial opinions and legal briefs. Obama, 28, succeeds Peter Yu, the review’s first Chinese American president.

“The body of editors believed that Barack had the necessary leadership skills to bring together and direct the largely diverse body of very intelligent law students and guide the magazine,” Yu said.

Review presidents are elected annually by the publication’s law-student editors. Each February, they lock themselves in a meeting to choose their next leader. Such sessions can run as long as 16 hours.

As the first Black, Obama must have presented the editors with quite a challenge. At 28, the Hawaii-born, second-year law student is also older than most of his contemporaries. He was raised by his Kenyan father and American mother, primarily in Indonesia and Los Angeles.

“I’m nontraditional less in my training than in my focus, and my past and my future plans,” Obama said. “My background is more concrete and hands-on. Issues of public policy and the Black community are of major importance to me.”

Many of his contemporaries will graduate from Harvard and head for clerkships for U.S. Appeals Court judges and Supreme Court Justices. But after he graduates, Obama plans to polish his skills at a law firm for a few years before returning to the Black community, where he worked prior to enrolling in Boston’s Harvard Law School in 1988.

“When I got out of Columbia, I knew I was interested in working on a community level, rebuilding inner-cities in some capacity,” said Obama.

He received his bachelor’s degree in political science from New York’s Columbia University in 1983. After graduation, he worked as a journalist for Business International, a financial newsletter based in New York.

“I got a quick MBA out of that job,” he said. “I became aware that it’s more and more important to understand the intricacies of the system, how money flows and business operates. As more public policy is made by private actors, any strategy for Blacks has to involve the understanding of what is happening in the private sector.”

After a year at the newsletter, Obama moved to Chicago where he headed the Developing Communities Project. “I wanted to put some of my ideas to work,” he said.

Obama was the project director, and for a time, the organization’s only staff member. The group was founded by area churches to establish job-training programs, tenant organizations and to offer counseling and tutoring to disadvantaged youth.

“I’m proud of those concrete achievements,” he said of his accomplishments as director. “We had a stable organization, with 13 full-time staff. There was a core of grass-roots leadership in place. They had confidence in their own abilities to change things.”

The sense of accomplishment gave Obama a natural break for his next career move, enrolling at Harvard.

“I wanted to pull back and reflect on what I was doing and learn more about how the system works,” he said. “Law and legal education provide a tremendous number of tools to see how this society works.”

Obama was one of the 78 student editors selected to edit the review out of more than 1,600 Harvard Law Students. A close friend urged Obama to run for president three weeks before the election. The friend told him, “It’s another door to kick down,” Obama said.

“That’s why I decided to run,” he said. “It was another door we hadn’t walked through yet.”

The decision was not without costs. As president of the Review, Obama will work an average of 60 hours a week, reading and editing all articles, running the office with an eye on the budget, and motivating and managing the student editors. In addition, he will still have to keep up with his classes.

“People like myself are learning a certain language of mainstream society, of power and decision making,” he said. “We have an obligation to go back to the Black community, to listen and learn and help give our people a voice.”

At the Review, Obama said that one of the biggest challenges he will face is the sharpening and toning of the legal arguments presented in the magazine, whether they are “traditional or pathbreaking.”

“My achievement is only the result of the much more significant achievements of the first Blacks at Harvard, the scholarship of W.E.B. DuBois and Frederick Douglass, the people who desegregated the schools in the South,” he said. “I hope people can look at me and see that achievement is part of a bigger struggle.”

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