President Obama's friend reflects on his farewell speech and his legacy
"Yes we can. Yes we did."
Those were President Barack Obama's parting words to a packed crowd last night.
It was his emotional farewell. After eight years in office, America's first black president leaves the White House next week.
He gave his farewell speech in Chicago — where he got his start in politics, first as a community organizer, then a state senator, a U.S. senator, before finally assuming the country's highest office.
"Barack Obama really came of age in Chicago. And to end his tenure with a speech in Chicago was really important to him, as a way of saying "Thank you, for helping to develop me so that I could do what I have done over the last eight years." - Reverend Alvin Love, a close friend of President Barack Obama
It was then and there that Barack Obama met the Reverend Alvin Love. The pair have stayed friends over the years, and Reverend Love attended the speech on Tuesday night.
He spoke with As it Happens guest host Helen Mann from Birmingham, Alabama. Here is part of their conversation.
Helen Mann: Reverend Love, I understand you were there last night with your six-year-old granddaughter. What was it like for you to listen to the president, with her in attendance, say goodbye to the office of president?
Alvin Love: It was for me a moment — a night — filled with so many mixed emotions. It was really hard for me to separate one from the other: tremendous sadness that these eight years are over, and that who I think to be a great president will no longer be the leader of the free world. But then, also, just tremendous joy for the journey — to have been a part of this moment in history with President Obama, and the things that he has accomplished and done, and the dignity with which he did it. And then the pride of being able to have my granddaughter there to witness it — at six years old, I don't know how much she understood, but I'm hoping that will be something that will stay in her memory, for the rest of her life, and maybe help shape her to do some great things.
"I don't think he could have run the campaign that he ran for president, and been victorious had he not learned how to organize people." - Reverend Alvin Love, on President Obama's experience as a community organizer
HM: Why do you think it was so important for the president to deliver the speech in Chicago?
AL: Well, I think because Barack Obama really came of age in Chicago. He came to Chicago searching for his own identity, searching for his religious foundation — so I think he found his foundation in Chicago. And to end his tenure with a speech in Chicago was really important to him. It might not have been so important to the rest of us — we were glad he did it — but I think it was important for him to do it as a way of saying "Thank you, for helping to develop me so that I could do what I have done over the last eight years."
HM: Can you recount for us the first time you met Barack Obama?
AL: Oh, the first time I met Barack Obama I was sitting in my office one bright spring day. I was in my office alone, and he just walked up to the door, rang the bell, and asked if he could have a few minutes of my time. I actually was leery of opening the door, because I'd had two people in the ten minutes prior to his coming who had come, and all of them were asking for money to go get a sandwich. And he came looking like he was hungry [laughs]. He was skinny. But I opened the door, and he began to share with me why he was there — a new community organizer in the area, explained what community organizing was, told me about his own personal background, having been born in Hawaii and living in Thailand [sic], an African father and all that. What was supposed to have been a 15-minute meeting ending up being two hours. Because I shared some of my background with him. His story was global, mine was local. So we kind of hit it off. And we've been kinda working together ever since.
"I think for African-Americans particularly, we put such a high expectation on him going in as the first African-American president — perhaps the kind of hope that many were looking for was more than anybody could have been expected to do.- Reverend Alvin Love
HM: His detractors point out that period as a community organizer as if it's a negative. But how do you think that work on the south side affected the president he eventually became?
AL: First of all, I think it taught him how to organize people. I don't think he could have run the campaign that he ran for president, and been victorious had he not learned how to organize people. It taught him, I think, how to listen to people of different viewpoints without getting into a real confrontation with them and driving them away from the table. I think he learned how to hear what the other person said, but then move them off their square to perhaps where they need to be. I think that's all a part of communication and community organizing. And so I think the successes, probably just as much as the failures as well, helped to shape him into a very good communicator and someone who knows how to build consensus among people who differ in their viewpoints.
HM: He was elected, of course, on this wave of hope and change — both times really. How do you think he did in terms of living up to the hopes of the people that you know in the community?
"I think that the rise of ISIL is a sore spot for all of us. We seemed to have replaced one form of terrorism with another one. But I don't think it's a disappointment that we can't overcome. - Reverend Alvin Love
AL: I think he did an excellent job in terms of throwing that concept of hope out to us and giving us something to shoot for. I think for African-Americans particularly, we put such a high expectation on him going in as the first African-American president. I don't know that anyone could have ever lived up to [it]. Perhaps — not to say that he didn't produce the kind of hope that he talked about — but perhaps the kind of hope that many people in our community were looking for was more than anybody could have been expected to do.
HM: What about the kinds of change that he promised? I'm thinking in particular some of the key points that he hasn't achieved: Guantanamo still being open, the situation in Syria...has the presidency disappointed in any way?
AL: Well I think any time you still have conflicts on foreign soil, that's a disappointment. I think that the rise of ISIL is a sore spot for all of us. We seemed to have replaced one form of terrorism with another one. But I don't think it's a disappointment that we can't overcome.
I think the backlash, yes, does open up the opportunity for a Trump election. But that doesn't mean that the racist ideology in America won.- Reverend Alvin Love
HM: What about in Chicago, where the violence over this past year or two has been absolutely breathtaking? Given his connection to the city, should he have somehow done more to address the roots of violence in communities like yours?
AL: I actually think that what he could do as president of the United States without overstepping the responsibilities of the governor and the mayor, I think he's done. People sometimes expect that since he came from Chicago, and he's got all the resources of the federal government that all he had to do was dump a bunch of money in Chicago, and everything would have been solved. Well, that's not the case, and Chicago's not the only city in the country.
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HM: In his speech last night, President Obama only once mentioned the name Donald Trump. But he did it in the context of the peaceful transition of power and, with great power, about American democracy. When you look at the incoming president, what are your thoughts in terms of how the Obama presidency and the reaction to it perhaps helped usher in Donald Trump?
AL: Well, I think anytime you start peeling the onion on some long-buried issues in our country, you're going to get a reaction — particularly [from] those who benefit from the way things were. And I think just the very fact that we had an African-American president will lift up the issue of race in America, and it forced America to deal with it — at least to confront it. And some of that confrontation — people really let some divisive emotions come out, some real nasty racism. I don't know if we're amazed by it, but we're certainly hurt by it. I actually believe that in the long run, it's going to force us to finally deal with these things, and to put this issue to bed in America once and for all. So I think the backlash, yes, does open up the opportunity for a Trump election. But that doesn't mean that the racist ideology in America won.
"I think his biggest legacy is in the sense of hope, and the tremendous amount of young people that he brought into the federal government.- Reverend Alvin Love
HM: Looking back, what do you think Barack Obama's main legacy will be as president?
AL: Well, I think even though the new administration is going to try to repeal the Affordable Care Act, I think getting 20 million people who didn't have health care on the health care rolls is a tremendous legacy. I think equal marriage rights is going to remain his legacy. But for me personally, I think his biggest legacy is in the kind of attitude that he brought to the country — the sense of hope, and the tremendous amount of young people that he brought into the federal government.
For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Reverend Alvin Love.