Watch a special episode of "California's Gold with Huell Howser" at the end of this article, where Huell gets the Presidential tour of Occidental College in Eagle Rock. The episode is also streaming here.
Barack Obama is most closely associated with Hawaii, his birthplace and childhood home; and Chicago, his adopted home and the launchpad for his political career. But the outgoing 44th president of the United States also has meaningful ties to Los Angeles. In addition to spending two years as a student at Occidental College, two significant moments of his life occurred here – one that helped set his political career into motion and one that could have derailed it. And now that his presidency is coming to a close, Obama and his family are reportedly considering a return to Southern California of sorts, with plans to make their second home in Rancho Mirage, near Palm Springs. In fact, the Obamas will be vacationing in Palm Springs immediately after Friday’s inauguration.
Obama spent his first two undergraduate years of college, from August 1979 to June 1981, as a student at Occidental College, a small liberal arts college in the Eagle Rock neighborhood of Los Angeles. He chose the school in part because he was offered a scholarship, but “mainly because,” he wrote in his 1995 memoir “Dreams From My Father,” “I'd met a girl from Brentwood while she was vacationing in Hawaii.”
At the age of 18, Obama moved into the Haines Hall annex dormitories on campus. He lived in a triple with a blond surfer from Diamond Bar and a Pakistani student from Karachi and London. His dorm was filled with black and international students, party animals, aspiring writers, surfers, and jocks. Obama forged bonds with a large and diverse group of friends, connecting across racial and cultural lines, all the while trying to figure out his own place in the world. Biographer David Marraniss wrote of Obama’s time at Occidental:
[I]n the development of the person he was to become, Oxy was significant … It was a new racial landscape that brought him into daily contact for the first time with a cohort of African American peers, helping him work through the complexities of his cultural identity … It was a school with a subset of intellectual professors and sophisticated students … who steered his interest towards politics and writing … And it was where … he felt the first stirrings of destiny, a sense, he told friends, that he was brought into this world for a purpose.
“When you left campus," Obama later wrote, "you drove on the freeway to Venice Beach or over to Westwood, passing East L.A. or South Central without even knowing it, just more palm trees peaking out like dandelions over the high concrete walls.”
As an Oxy student, Obama also came to know Los Angeles. He later wrote: “When you left campus, you drove on the freeway to Venice Beach or over to Westwood, passing East L.A. or South Central without even knowing it, just more palm trees peaking out like dandelions over the high concrete walls.” Those concrete walls were the walls of L.A.’s freeways, which in the prior two decades had remade the landscape of the city, dividing and destroying some communities while providing faster drive times (at least for a while) around town. In fact, near Occidental, the last portion of the 2 (Glendale) Freeway, the stretch between the 134 and 210 freeways, had just been completed a year before Obama’s arrival in Los Angeles.
After a year in the dorms, Obama moved into an apartment in Pasadena. While Obama was struggling with his own identity, the City of Pasadena was coming to terms with its own identity and complicated racial history. The city has had a black community since the 1880s and boasts Jackie Robinson as a native son, but has also excluded blacks from many aspects of city life. Pasadena finally elected its first black city board member, Loretta Thompson-Glickman, in 1977, just two years before Obama’s arrival. She became the city’s mayor in 1982. And in the city made famous by the Rose Parade, the first black Queen of the Rose Parade reigned a few years later, in 1985. In and around the time of Obama’s residency in Pasadena, the city was experiencing some of the “firsts” that Obama would later come to signify for the nation.
During his sophomore year at Occidental, Obama started becoming politically active. He later recalled: “I became more socially conscious at Occidental even though I was partying…[I] started being interested in social policy and poverty and starting to study civil rights, even if was through the haze of a hangover. So that starts giving me a sense of what a purposeful life might look like. That becomes tied up with my racial identity. I start thinking about what it means to be, not just a man, but a black man in American, and how do you forge dignity and respect in a society that is still troubled by the question of race.”
It was during this time that Obama gave his first political speech, which was at a rally to persuade the Board of Trustees to divest the school’s investments in Apartheid-era South Africa. Obama stepped up to a microphone at the rally and said:
There’s a struggle going on … I say there’s a struggle going on! It’s happening an ocean away. But it’s a struggle that touches each and every one of us. Whether we know it or not. Whether we want it or not. A struggle that demands we choose sides. Not between black and white. Not between rich and poor. No – it’s a harder choice than that. It’s a choice between dignity and servitude. Between fairness and injustice. Between commitment and indifference. A choice between right and wrong …
The speech was not long as he was quickly carried off by two students pretending to be oppressive Afrikaners, but it was a glimpse of what was to come. He later wrote: “If I could just find the right words, I had thought to myself. With the right words everything could change – South Africa, the lives of ghetto kids just a few miles away, my own tenuous place in the world.” Over two decades later, Obama found the right words – “we are not red states or blue states, but the United States of America” – that would start a movement and spur a new generation of young people into political action.
After two years at Occidental, Obama moved to New York City and transferred to Columbia University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree, before attending Harvard Law School and then finally moving to Chicago. In all, he spent two years as an Angeleno.
Obama did come back to Los Angeles at another pivotal moment in his life. But this time, it was a low point.
In 2000, Obama, then an Illinois state senator, was badly beaten in the Democratic primary race for Illinois’s first congressional district. He was feeling down about his political career, so a friend suggested that he travel to Los Angeles to attend the Democratic National Convention, held that year at the downtown Staples Center arena. After booking the cheapest flight to LAX he could find, Obama’s credit card was refused when he tried to rent a car at the airport. When he finally found a way to get the car, he drove to his friend’s hotel to get the convention pass. But the pass was only good for the hall and did not let him onto the floor to see any part of the actual convention. His friend tried to get him into some after-parties and the bouncers turned away Obama, who lacked proper credentials. He ended up leaving early.
His return to L.A. was a total failure, and it came at a time when he was questioning his career in politics. Ultimately, as history records it, Obama chose to persevere. Just four years later, he gave the keynote address at the next Democratic National Convention, won a seat in the U.S. Senate, and rocketed into the national spotlight. And yet history almost turned out differently. Los Angeles, the city where he first entered the realm of political activity two decades earlier, nearly became the place where a promising political career met its premature end.
Gordon, Larry. “Occidental recalls ‘Barry’ Obama.” Los Angeles Times, January 29, 2007, Accessed January 17, 2017. http://articles.latimes.com/2007/jan/29/local/me-oxy29
Mifflin, Margot. “Obama at Occidental.” The New Yorker, October 3, 2012. Accessed January 17, 2017. http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/obama-at-occidental
Maraniss, David. “Barack Obama: The Story.” New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012.
Maraniss, Davis. “Barrack Obama: the college years.” The Guardian, May 25, 2012. Accessed January 17, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/may/25/barack-obama-the-college-years
Obama, Barack. “Dreams from My Father.” New York: Three Rivers Press, 1995.
Scheid, Ann. “Pasadena: Crown of the Valley.” Northridge, California: Windsor Publications, 1986.
The Axe Files with David Axelrod. President Obama, Episode 108, December 26, 2016 [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from http://www.apple.com/itunes/
“Obama at Oxy.” Occidental College. Accessed January 17, 2017. http://www.oxy.edu/our-story/oxy-people/obama-oxy
“Obama Biographer Speaks on Campus,.” Occidental College. Accessed January 17, 2017. http://www.oxy.edu/news/obama-biographer-speaks-campus
“Obama lived here: Pasadena puts a plaque on the onetime Occidental College student's apartment building.” Los Angeles Times, December 18, 2016. Accessed January 17, 2017. http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-obama-apartment-20161218-story.html