Herman Cain: From the Back of the Bus to the White House?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
Font Size:

While Matt is on holiday, he has selected a few of his “greatest hits” to re-run until he returns next week. This originally ran on March 15, 2011

President Barack Obama’s childhood has been widely discussed, and (by some) hotly debated, but much less is known about the man hoping to become the second black president, Herman Cain.

By now, most political junkies know of Cain’s background as the CEO of Godfathers Pizza, his work as a successful conservative radio host, and maybe even that he is a stage 4 cancer survivor.

But to really understand Cain — and why his background provides a terrific “American Dream” narrative — one must begin in a small house in segregated Atlanta.

Cain’s grandparents (both sets) were sharecroppers. His parents, Luther and Lenora Davis Cain, walked off of their respective farms around the age of 18, determined to forge new futures.

After years working three jobs, Luther eventually landed a job as full-time private chauffeur and all around “right hand man” for Robert W. Woodroff, son of the head of the Coca-Cola Company.  “He was proud of his profession,” Cain recalls. “Dad never saw himself as a victim. He saw himself having a job as a chauffeur as an opportunity.”

Herman and his younger brother Thurman grew up in a rented three-room “duplex” in Atlanta (the house was actually a split house, but Cain’s dad called it a duplex), until one day when Luther drove the family to a two-bedroom red brick home on Albert Street in Atlanta.

“[Dad] wanted to surprise all of us,” recalls Cain.  “It was a surprise alright.”  (Herman’s dad had purchased the American Dream with cash even Lenora didn’t know he had been socking away for years).

But while family life may have shaped Herman, so did the times. Herman Cain (the joke is his family couldn’t afford the middle name) was born in 1945, so, for the first two decades of his life, he lived in under segregation in Atlanta, Georgia.

As a child, Herman sat in the “blacks only” balcony of the Fox Theater and practiced learning to read sentences written on the buses like: “White seats from front, colored seats from rear.” And Cain — unlike President Obama (a point sure to come up if Cain gains traction) — knows what it’s like to drink from a “colored” water fountain.

“We were at the bargain basement department store one day,” Cain told me recently, “and my mom was looking on the rack and we asked if we could go get some water. And mom specifically said, ‘Make sure you all drink out of the colored fountain’. And then, typical young boys, we kind of went ‘mmm nobody’s looking’.” Cain continues, “My brother went first while I stayed on the lookout. Then he was on look out while I sipped the white water’.”

What lesson did he learned from this experience? “We looked at each other and said: ‘The water tastes the same!’  ‘What’s the big deal’?”

Cain declined to say whether or not coming of age during the Civil Rights era might have also benefited President Obama, but he did tell me: “Because of my upbringing, I can still consider myself ‘regular folks’.  I think the ‘ regular folks’ touch that I naturally have would be a big plus.”

As he grew into adulthood, Cain rejected the hyphenated American concept, but did embrace what he calls the black pride movement.  “I have an old picture of me with a big Afro — and I’m not going to give it to you,” he teased, during our interview.

Cain also speaks frequently and fondly of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., saying King was “called to lead — he really didn’t go looking for that job.  Because he was a natural born leader, Dr. King sort of rose to the top.”

… Luther and Lenora also had a dream — they wanted their children to go to college.

Despite graduating second in his 1963 high school class at Samuel Howard Archer High School (Herman went to school with soul singer Gladys Knight) — the University of Georgia (which first accepted black students a couple years earlier) — turned him down.

But both Cain children did go on to graduate from college: Thurman from Morris Brown College and Herman from Morehouse College (both schools were in Atlanta).  “I remember at my college graduation, how proud my mom and dad were that I was actually walking down the aisle with that robe on,” Cain recalls, “they were beaming.”

“Dad took the family and our girlfriends out to dinner (at Paschal’s restaurant in Atlanta) and he was splurging in a big, big, big way,” Cain remembers.

Lenora’s other dream was for her boys to get a “good job” — by which Cain says she defined as: “When you go to an office, you put on a suit and a tie, and you work in air conditioning.” Herman’s first job out of college was working for the Department of Navy (he was not “in” the Navy, but an employee). Another dream accomplished.

Cain’s first job launched an incredible career, and (as I’ve written and has been widely documented by others) he would eventually rise to become CEO of Godfathers Pizza — and chairman of the board for the National Restaurant Association.

And, a la “Joe the Plumber,” Cain would eventually burst onto the political scene by surprising President Bill Clinton with some tough questions during a televised town hall meeting meant to sell “Hillarycare” in 1994.

Much has changed since his days growing up in segregated Georgia. For one thing, this son of a chauffeur now has his own driver (Joel Ricks — who is also a close personal friend and confidant — drives Cain on the campaign trail) as he seeks to become the second black president.

But while much has changed, much remains the same.  Cain has been married to wife Gloria for 42 years, and continued to attend Antioch Baptist Church North in Atlanta — the church he grew up in.  “I have an original copy of my birth certificate. I don’t have any illegitimate babies. I don’t have any mistresses,” Cain joked in a recent conference call with bloggers.

Matt K. Lewis