Face-to-Face with Young Marxist Obama: Remembering My Days as an Anti-Apartheid Student Activist


Flipping through some old photos, I found this picture of me graduating from Occidental College on June 9, 1979. I’m wearing a red arm band. My parents were probably angry at me for doing this because it spoiled the graduation photo. Nevertheless, this photo has now come in handy as significant evidence that I was doing my part to protest Occidental College’s investments in South Africa. Moreover, it is part of the trail of documents that allows me to make the case that I was, indeed, a radical student who founded the anti-apartheid group which young President Obama spoke for a year and a half later on the Occidental College campus.

The fellow handing me my diploma was Occidental College president Richard C. Gilman. I’m sure he didn’t care for me…and I believed he was an evil guy.

From what Obama writes, I had the unusual opportunity to meet the young Barack Obama at a turning point in his life. In Dreams of My Father, Obama writes he got one of the early signs of his interest (and ability) in public speaking during his participation in a later anti-apartheid rally at Oxy in the fall of 1980.

I met Barack Obama face-to-face later that same year in late December 1980. By then, I was in my second year of graduate school at Cornell. I was doing my first, official teaching. The young Ann Coulter was a student in Theodore J. Lowi’s Introduction to American Government course in 1980 and I was the teaching assistant responsible for guiding her small group discussion section. Back on the West Coast for Christmas break, I was visiting a girlfriend who was still attending Occidental College who introduced me to “Barry” Obama and his housemate Mohammed Hasan Chandoo, a wealthy Pakistani student.

My most vivid memory of my time visiting with Obama was the way he strongly argued a rather simple-minded version of Marxist theory. I remember he was passionate about his point of view. As I remember, he was articulating the same Marxist theory taught by various professors at Occidental College. Based on my more detailed studies at Cornell, I remember I made a strong argument that his Marxist ideas were not in line with contemporary reality – particularly the practical experience of Western Europe.

I went on to become an assistant professor of political science at Williams College in MA, and won the William Anderson Award from the American Political Science Association for my doctoral dissertation. See here.

Obama, of course, became President of the United States in 2009. I can’t help but wonder if my common sense arguments ended up impacting his decision-making and career planning.

Nevertheless, I think my experience with the young Barack Obama is useful evidence of why he was able to win the trust and support of Bill Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn and Alice Palmer. In 1995, Alice Palmer represented the state of Illinois’ 13th District. After she decided to run for Congress she named Obama as her hand-picked successor. Palmer’s extremist ideology is evident in an article she wrote for the Communist Party USA’s newspaper, the People’s Daily World, now the People’s Weekly World in June, 1986. Amazingly, it detailed her experience at the 27th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Regarding Rev. Wright’s affection for Marxism and socialism, please view the YouTube video below:

My gut feeling is that Obama won the trust of folks like Alice Palmer because he never surrendered that uncompromising, Marxist socialist ideology I saw in him as a sophomore at Occidental College back in 1980.

My graduation photo helps me remember my days as a young revolutionary and the moments when – like Barack Obama – I sincerely believed a Marxist socialist revolution was coming to turn everything around and to create a new, fairer and more just world. Today, however, it pains me to write that I’m deeply ashamed of my radical views. With more maturity, I understand the true meaning of that red arm band. It is especially painful for me to look at it knowing that my time at Occidental College aligned with the brutal Khmer Rouge period (1975-1979) which covered the rule of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge over Cambodia.

Nevertheless, I’m happy to revisit this unhappy chapter of my life if it helps others better understand the sincere commitment to Marxist revolutionary thought which animated me and the young President Obama.

John C. Drew, Ph.D. is an award-winning political scientist.