Obama confronts U.S. legacy of racial division

March 19, 2008 5:21:30 AM PDT
Presidential candidate Barack Obama criticized the words of his former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, but says he cannot disown him.He was forced to confront the issue of race following inflammatory sermons by his former pastor.

Race is one of those big issues that political candidates don't like to talk about publicly because it defies easy answers and makes people uncomfortable. But race affects attitudes and of course voting patterns. And when a black candidate's pastor and spiritual advisor makes comments that offend a lot of people, black and white, that candidate has to speak out publicly. And that's what Obama did for nearly an hour in Philadelphia Tuesday.

Obama, according to campaign advisors, stayed up until 2 a.m. finishing the speech he delivered Tuesday morning to several hundred local clergymen and political supporters on the role of race in America, his own life, his presidential campaign and his church, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, where his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, sparked a firestorm of controversy with inflammatory comments about an America that Obama says he vehemently disagrees with.

"The profound mistake of Reverend Wright's sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It's that he spoke as if our society was static, as if no progress had been made. What we have seen is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation," Obama said.

Obama's rejecting some of Wright's words but not Wright himself, a tireless crusader for social justice who's been a mentor and advisor and a spiritual leader to Obama and his family.

"As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He contains within him the contradictions, the good and the bad, of the community that he has served diligently for so many years. I can no more disown him than I can disown him the black community," said Obama.

The speech is also a recognition of the need to deal with the resentment among some whites who feel victimized by a society that appears to be more sensitive to blacks than to them.

"Most working and middle class white Americans don't feel that they've been particularly privileged by their race. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town and an African-American is getting an advantage in landing a good job, resentment builds over time. Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren't always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation. I have never been so naive as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle. But I have asserted a firm conviction, a conviction rooted in my faith in god and my faith in the American people, that working together, we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds and that in fact we have no choice. We have no choice if we are to continue on the path of the more perfect union," said Obama.

And that term "a more perfect union" is what the framers of the Constitution said back in 1787 when they drafted that document in Philadelphia.

Obama's wife, Michelle, was in the audience Tuesday. She was allegedly in tears during some of the comments.

Obama's speech was an attempt to put the issue of race on the table because it's in people's minds, and he felt that it should be talked about now and certainly now after Wright's comments. This speech was very different from others Obama has given. This wasn't about a charismatic rock star trying to fire up an audience. This was an intellectual, a cerebral and a very academic type speech. It did not have the short pithy sound bites common on the campaign trail. This was reportedly something he wrote himself, from the heart, and from 47 years of experience.

Many felt Senator Obama did a good job of putting the Rev. Wright issue behind him and even a better job of boldly addressing the issue of race. This was a speech that political observers say gave Obama some much-needed momentum going into the final primaries. On the other hand, some conservative Republicans did not think the speech said enough.

College students watched and talk radio listened to a 45-minute speech on race, as Sen. Obama put the issue on the table. He tried to put the divisive comments from his former pastor behind him while candidly addressed the anger between whites and blacks.

"He had to get this on the table, address it directly, not to skirt around it, not to try to obfuscate it. He did it in a good, sound manner," said Bishop Arthur Brazier, Apostolic Church of God.

"Throughout the course of the speech, I have yet to receive a positive email on what Barack Obama had to say," said a conservative talk show host at WLS-AM.

While conservative talk radio may disagree with Obama's continued relationship with Wright, students, many who support Obama, can easily move beyond the issue.

"You can't as a person be responsible for someone who has a completely different career and totally different motivation and a whole different life. How can you be responsible for what they have to say all the time?" said Paul Fleck, student.

Closely watching the speech were members of Wright and Obama's church.

"We do need to move further along and get on with the work. I think that his speech touched on so many things," said Dr. Linda Thomas, church member.

For political observers, the speech was crucial in getting his campaign out of a reactive mode back into Obama's theme of hope and racial unity.

"This gives the campaign the momentum to go back on the offensive and to move ahead in Pennsylvania and the other nearly dozen primaries that still lie ahead," said Dick Simpson, UIC professor.

Political science professor Simpson says the speech reminded him of the speech John Kennedy gave to the Baptist convention about religion when Kennedy was running for president. Simpson also says the speech was well received by young people who are anxious to move beyond the issue of race.

From conservatives to liberals, everyone is paying close attention to Obama's speech and its potential impact on the race for president and race in America.

On WVON talk radio, the talk on this day is about Obama's speech and nothing else. Most every caller supports the Illinois senator.

The station replayed the 45 minute speech in its entirety. Host Cliff Kelley said he considers both Senator Obama and Reverand Wright as friends. But he says the speech exceeded his high expectations.

"It was a teaching tool, I mean, he was teaching as he does? the constitutional law professor that he is," said Kelley.

Reverend Jesse Jackson, an Obama supporter, said he believes the speech was a success.

"One of the most meaningful and moving speeches I ever heard in my life. It dealt in breadth and depth of America's moral dilemma, that's the issue of race," Jackson said.

Senator Obama's campaign strategists are clearly hoping this speech moves the campaign beyond the controversy over Pastor Wright.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was also in Philadelphia Tuesday. She was joined by Mayor Michael Nutter, retired CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson and her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson. The Wilsons as well as the mayor talked about how Senator Clinton is ready to handle Iraq if elected president.

Clinton said she did not have a chance yet to see Obama's speech on race but said she is glad he gave it.

"Issues of race and gender in Americas have been complicated throughout our history. And they are complicated in this primary campaign There have been detours along the way. But we should remember that this is an historic moment for the Democratic Party and for our country," she said.

In the meantime, former president Bill Clinton was in southern Indiana stumping for his wife. He touted Hillary Clinton's economic program. Indiana's primary is slated for May 6.

Republican presidential candidate John McCain continued his Mideast swing. Fresh from a visit to Iraq, he met with Jordan's King Abdullah in Amman and other political leaders in Jerusalem. McCain says they discussed paths to peace in the region.

McCain said they talked about "a variety of issues, including our cooperation and our emphasis on the Israeli Palestinian peace process and our commitment to making sure that that difficult challenge is met with every effort."

Senator McCain will also visit Britain and France.

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