Mr. Obama’s story first surfaced publicly in February 1990, when he was elected as the first black president of The Harvard Law Review. An initial wire service report described him simply as a 28-year-old, second-year student from Hawaii who had “not ruled out a future in politics”.
In his new book, "Barack Obama: The Story," David Maraniss quotes Obama as saying that his grade point average at Columbia was an impressive 3.7. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, which cannot happen with poor grades.
"I remember that the black law students had organized an orientation for the first year students, and one of the persons who spoke at that orientation was Professor [Derrick] Bell [first tenured black professor at Harvard]... I remember him... not giving a lecture, but engaging us in a conversation. And speaking the truth." [from a video of Barack Obama speaking at a 1991 protest]
It was perhaps Barack Obama's most intense immersion in the charged campus racial politics of the late 1980s and early 1990s: As President of the Harvard Law Review in the spring of his final year there, 1991, he aligned himself with Professor Derrick Bell's dramatic protest for diversity on the faculty of Harvard Law School.
Bell was the first black tenured professor at the school, and a pioneer of "critical race theory," which insisted, controversially, on reading issues of race and power into legal scholarship.
"People don`t feel that they can have much impact," [Obama] said in a phone interview from the Review's offices. "I want to get people involved in having a say in how their lives are run. More and more of that needs to be done."
The Review is considered one of the most authoritative of the law school reviews and is a forum for judges and scholars. It is also a high-powered springboard for aspiring lawyers. Its presidents usually go on serve as a clerk for a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for a year and then as a clerk for an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. It took 91 years to elect a woman, and it wasn`t until last year that an Asian was elected by his fellow editors to the position. For Obama, it`s another victory in the fight against "powerlessness."
[Obama] was elected president of the Harvard Law Review, responsible for editing US jurisprudence's most prestigious publication. He was the first African-American to hold the post, and the resulting publicity brought with it a book deal, which resulted in the publication of Dreams From My Father.
Rather than going directly to graduate school, Obama worked for four years for the Developing Communities Project in Chicago, a Saul Alinsky-inspired group aiming to mobilise grassroots organisations within the city's poor black neighbourhoods. Chicago was, and still is, a fulcrum of black activism... At the age of 27, Obama was accepted to Harvard University's law school.
These were professional arguers, the most career-driven young people imaginable: Many of them belonged to what Martha Minow, a professor at the law school, calls "a very large diverse group of people who think rather well of themselves and who are already jockeying for power not only within the institution, but who are ambitious about the future." In this cauldron of careerism, Minow says, Obama stood out because he was not an obvious climber and because "he had then, as he has now, a sense of individuals having obligations to the community, which is not something people [at Harvard Law] usually talk about." Like others, she was struck by his ability to entertain the ideas of opponents. "He spoke with a kind of ability to rise above the conversation and summarize it and reframe it. There was a maturity he brought to the discussion."
Whatever he thought going in, it was at Harvard Law School that Obama's political skills -- and aspirations -- would emerge rather dramatically. All that South Side dispute mediation prepared him well to operate in a more elite but equally factionalized atmosphere. In 1988, Harvard, like Chicago, was a bitterly divided place politically: It was a liberal campus, mostly, but there was a hardy body of conservatives who belonged to the campus chapter of the Federalist Society. "The conservatives were a small and beleaguered minority, which made us all the more vocal," says one of them, Brad Berenson, a former associate counsel to President George W. Bush who is now a lawyer in the Washington office of Sidley Austin. There were fights over legal issues -- habeas corpus, the First Amendment -- but most of all, Berenson says, there were "tremendous fights over tenure decisions for women and minorities."