Video: Obama delivers major speech on race

By NBC Reporter
updated 3/20/2008 11:30:20 AM ET 2008-03-20T15:30:20

Over pricey steaks and ivory linens in the finest of restaurants, the nation's leading political journalists are still savoring the tastes of Tuesday.

Much of the mainstream media has reviewed Barack Obama's Philadelphia speech on race in America with praise befitting haute couture or fine wine, calling it "spellbinding," "searing," and "brilliant."

But at the K & W Cafeteria in Fayetteville, where roast beef is $3.85, with turnip greens or sweet tea for an extra dollar, the reviews — like the menu — are a little less complicated.

"I think he played the race card too much," says George McNeill of Aberdeen, N.C., as he politely nudges to the side his plate of ham mac n' cheese. "In all honesty, I got the idea a time or two that he was more looking down on the white race than I thought he should."

McNeill, a 72-year old Marine Corps veteran and outspoken Republican, calls himself a "news hound" who expected Obama to be an impressive and successful politician in the race.

But, he says, he's been disappointed not only with Obama's politics but with what he sees as profoundly unpatriotic statements from Obama's controversial minister and from his wife Michelle.

And he worries Obama's head-on tackling of racial issues might come at the expense of the progress made in his lifetime.

"I don't think race is as big a deal as it used to be," he adds plainly, shaking a white-haired head old enough to have seen decades of racial strife unfold. "It is getting more equal every day."

Where they standTed Ruffin really believed that Hillary Clinton was the woman for the job. The manager at K & W, he wanted a candidate who could relate to both the most needy and the most well-to-do of the customers who walk in his door. For a long time, the wife of an Arkansas orphan fit the bill.

Now, though, he slyly opens a weathered chestnut palm to flash — for an instant — a tiny pin emblazoned with Obama's face. He's been won over.

"He's not talking in a foreign language to anybody," Ruffin says, scanning the line of faces - black, white, young, and old — with trays piled with sliced turkey and unapologetically gooey pieces of pie. "He understands white. And he understands black."

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He says that negativity in the race had started to leave a sour taste months ago. But it wasn't until the last few weeks that he finally made the switch when Hillary Clinton proposed that Barack Obama would make an excellent contender — for vice president. "He's the frontrunner!" he chuckles. "There's somethin' just not quite right with that."

As a lifelong churchgoer and a Southern woman at her core, Deborah Parish has a deep appreciation for the religious and racial roots that anchor Obama's identity.

A white woman often transplanted by her husband's military service, she's had her taste of unsavory comments from ministers at the many churches the couple has attended throughout their travels.

"We've had pastors who I haven't agreed with," she says in defense of Obama's association with Rev. Jeremiah Wright. "But I didn't stop going to church. Because I'm not going for the pastor, I'm going for my soul."

The vicious racism of the old South is still seared into her memory — and even more so into the hearts of older generations of Americans, says Parish, 57.

She believes that both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama would be good stewards of a healing process that has been a long time in coming. Asked if the nation is ready to have that discussion, she nods determinedly.

"I hope so," she adds with a measured, molasses drawl. "I hope that America is ready to let bygones be bygones and put the past in the past."

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