Within the walls of a church hallowed by the voice of one of America's great leaders, Barack Obama called for a "unity" of voices to bring about change and overcome a "deficit of empathy" in America.
Invited to speak at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the church of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the weekend of his birthday, Obama reached gingerly for the mantle of Dr. King, trying to tie King's legacy to the call for change that has driven Americans to the polls in record numbers this election season.
"I will try to deliver my service succinctly and in a spirit of humility because I'm aware of how meaningful this pulpit is, not just to the city of Atlanta but to the African-American community and to the rest of the nation," Obama told the congregation packed with regular church-goers, politicians including two U.S. congressmen and Atlanta's mayor, as well as members of King's own family, including his sister Christine King Farris.
Obama said that there was much left to be done to change the United States and overcome racism. He also asked African Americans to turn an eye on themselves, asking them if they had lived up to the "beloved community" King had championed. He openly called out the existence of homophobia, anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant sentiments, and absent fatherhood in America's black communities.
‘A moral deficit ... an empathy deficit’
"I'm talking about a moral deficit. I'm talking about an empathy deficit. I'm talking about an inability to recognize ourselves in one another; to understand that we are our brother's keeper; we are our sister's keeper; that, in the words of Dr. King, we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny," he said.
In his stump speeches across the country, Obama essentially asks the audiences to take a leap of faith in his candidacy, asking them to trust "their better judgment" and "what's in your gut" to trust that they should choose a man untested by the many fires burning through Washington. In his speech Sunday, he made that call more openly, using the parable of Jericho in the Bible and King's legacy of leading bus boycotts and marches and speaking out against Vietnam, to tell voters that they should trust themselves to take a leap of faith and vote for his candidacy.
He returned to his refrain about hope, criticizing without naming her Sen. Hillary Clinton for saying he was peddling "false hope," and using his personal story made a reference to the discussions of his past drug use that has recently been raised by surrogates of Clinton.
"As a teenager I got into trouble and did some things that folks now like to talk about. I had to have hope!" he shouted.
‘None of us will be exempt’
Positioning himself at King's pulpit and engaging in one of his most open discussions of race and civil rights, Obama appeared to want to step into the shoes of a man whom fate took too son and who left with much work unfinished.
Speaking of that unfinished work, he referenced the debate raging within the Democratic Party, saying, "The changes that are needed are not just a matter of tinkering at the edges, and they will not come if politicians simply tell us what we want to hear. All of us will be called upon to make some sacrifice. None of us will be exempt from responsibility."
And making a reference to Clinton's swipe at him that words were not enough, Obama reminded the crowd that King's eloquence was what carried his movement forward.
"That is how Dr. King led this country through the wilderness. He did it with words — words that he spoke not just to the children of slaves, but the children of slave owners. Words that inspired not just black but also white, not just the Gentile but also the Jew, not just the Southerner but also the Northerner."
But for the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist, at least, whether Obama could carry forward a movement for change in the way that King did was irrelevant. It was Obama's mere existence as a potential candidate for the Democratic nomination that was progress enough.
"We had to fight, bleed and die just to be able to vote,” said the Rev. Raphael G. Warnock. “Now we can select presidents, and now with credibility and intelligence and power we can run for president."
As Obama continues his fight for the Democratic nomination, it's that spirit of pride that Warnock expressed that the candidate hopes to tap into, urging black voters to take a chance on his candidacy and look past their own doubts about whether he can be elected.
"I understand that many of you are still a little skeptical. You're not as skeptical as you were before Iowa.… Sometimes, ahh, I got to be careful here, sometimes it takes other folks before we believe in ourselves," he said at an NAACP banquet, commemorating Dr. King's birthday in Las Vegas on Friday night.
A test in South Carolina
The Democratic primary in South Carolina that will be held Saturday will be the first test of Obama's viability among black voters. He has a strong lead in the polls in South Carolina, but Clinton has vowed to fight just as hard for the black vote and will be dispatching her husband, former President Bill Clinton, who enjoys immense popularity among blacks, to campaign for her there.
But winning in the South could be key for an Obama victory, since states with large African-American populations like Georgia will be voting on or before Feb. 5 — “Super Tuesday” — and if he can make the case to African Americans that he is electable, it makes his reach for the Democratic nomination that much easier to grasp.
Obama ended his visit to King's church by laying a wreath of roses on King's memorial. He ended the service inside the church holding hands with three of the church's leaders, and swaying to the music, his head bowed, lips moving silently. It was a moving moment in an equally moving Sunday sermon, but a preacher in the church invoking Obama's name allowed a moment of irony to creep into the end of the service.
"If any of you felt Jesus in Senator Obama's speech, then come forward," he called out during the benediction. People stepped forward, but it was for Jesus rather than for the senator from Illinois.