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Battling alongside Barack Obama
Al Jazeera's Mike Hanna examines the Illinois senator's activist roots.
Last Modified: 31 Oct 2008 19:28 GMT

Obama fought to get asbestos removed from the Atgeld Gardens development [Al Jazeera]

Chicago was once the most racially divided of American cities; and yet it is today at the centre of a political process which may end in the election of the nation's first black president.

It is in Chicago that Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate, embarked on his political path. And it is in Chicago where he will be when the results in the election begin to come in on November 4.

To understand the city's role in Obama's rise to prominence its necessary to go back more than two decades.

That was when, as a 24-year-old, he decided to work as a community organiser in the South Side, a largely run-down part of Chicago with a majority African-American population.

We met up with Linda Randle, who the 1980s worked as an activist and organiser in Chicago's civil rights movement. 

In 1986, she was working to improve the living conditions of about 4,500 African Americans living in Altgeld Gardens, a housing development established for servicemen returning after the World War II. 

The issue at the time was the removal of asbestos used in the construction of the housing.

Over a period of four years people like Linda Randle took on the city and the state in a legal and political battle to get the asbestos removed.

Learning to fight

It is in this period that she got to know Obama, who was working alongside her.

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She thought then he was going to be the greatest black civil rights lawyer the country had ever seen.

"He never took credit for anything that he personally did not perform", she told us.

"I think that 99 per cent of working here and being out and learning that you have to fight so many people to get things done was the lesson that he will always carry with him".

Over lunch as he tells us that she has five children, 12 grandchildren and one great-grandchild. 

In her home she half-jokingly adds that anybody who did not register as a voter at 18-years of age does not get any food.

The vote, she believes, is the real power of the people, the only way in which each person can influence the policy that determines how you live. 

Chicago legacy

Barack Obama, she believes, is the result of a process that began in Chicago decades ago.

Linda Rangle worked alongside Obama
in the 1980s
One in which legendary figures such as Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson and Carol Moseley Braun all played a role. 

In particular she remembers fondly the first black mayor of Chicago, Harold Washington, who died in 1989 at the end of his four years in office. 

The story she and others tell about Washington is an engaging one: How during his mayoral campaign he was confronted by an angry white woman who could not imagine the idea of a black mayor.

"You can run from me and hide from me," Washington boomed back at the woman "but you will not stop me from finding you and being fair to you". 

The woman became a supporter, and another step towards narrowing the racial divide was taken.

Randle says this is something that became a central part of Obama's political philosophy - a concept of fairness that is not determined by race, age, gender or creed.

It is the foundation of a value system that she says Obama believes in, and one that she shares.  

Historic change

Back in Altgeld Gardens, children were playing basketball during a school break.

In decades past there was no possibility that one of these African-Americans could become a president. Now, whether Obama wins or not, the possibility has been made real.

With the children laughing behind I ask her what she feels about the possibility of an Obama victory.

Her face lights up, she chuckles, and says "I'll take it."

"I'll take it any day of the week."

Source:
Al Jazeera
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