It was an extraordinary moment — the first black candidate with a good chance at becoming a presidential nominee, in a country in which racial distrust runs deep and often unspoken, embarking at a critical juncture in his campaign upon what may be the most significant public discussion of race in decades.
In a speech whose frankness about race many historians said could be likened only to speeches by Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln, Senator Barack Obama, speaking across the street from where the Constitution was written, traced the country’s race problem back to not simply the country’s "original sin of slavery" but the protections for it embedded in the Constitution.
Yet the speech was also hopeful, patriotic, quintessentially American — delivered against a blue backdrop and a phalanx of stars and stripes. Obama invoked the fundamental values of equality of opportunity, fairness, social justice. He confronted race head-on, then reached beyond it to talk sympathetically about the experiences of the white working class and the plight of workers stripped of jobs and pensions.
"As far as I know, he’s the first politician since the Civil War to recognize how deeply embedded slavery and race have been in our Constitution," said Paul Finkelman, a professor at Albany Law School who has written extensively about slavery, race and the Constitution. "That's a profoundly important thing to say. But what's important about the way he said it is he doesn't use this as a springboard for anger or for frustration. He doesn't say, 'O.K., slavery was bad, therefore people are owed something.' This is not a reparations speech. This is a speech about saying it's time for the nation to do better, to form a more perfect union."
Obama's address came more than a year into a campaign conceived and conducted to appear to transcend the issue of race, to try to build a broad coalition of racial and ethnic groups favoring change. In the issues he has emphasized and the language he has used, as well as in the way he has presented himself, he has worked to elude pigeonholing as a black politician.
He has been criticized as "not black enough" and "too black," he acknowledged Tuesday. In recent months, the issue of race has stirred up the smooth surface of his campaign and become a source of tension between him and his opponent, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. In the past week, videotaped snippets of the incendiary race rhetoric of Obama's longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., seemed on the verge of tainting Obama with the stereotype he had carefully avoided: angry black politician.
He faced a choice: Having already denounced Wright's ferocious charges about white America, he could try to distance himself from the man who drew him to Christianity, married him and baptized his two children. Or he could try to explain what appeared to many to be the contradiction between Wright's world view and the one Obama had professed as his own.
To some extent, he did both.
In a setting that bespoke the presidential, he began with the personal: He invoked his own biography as the son of a black Kenyan man and a white American woman, grandson of a World War II veteran and a bomber assembly line worker, husband of a black American who carries "the blood of slaves and slave owners." Seared into his genetic makeup, he said, is "the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts — that out of many, we are truly one."
He condemned Wright’s remarks as divisive but at the same time embraced him as family, "as imperfect as he may be." He traced the roots of black church preaching deep into "the bitterness and bias" of the black experience. He offered a primer on the link between today's racial disparities and the system of legalized discrimination that prevented blacks from owning property, joining unions, becoming police officers and firefighters, and accumulating wealth to pass on to future generations.
"For the men and women of Reverend Wright's generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away," Obama said. "Nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table." And occasionally, he said, "in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews."
Obama addresses 'white anger'
He acknowledged white anger, too — over things like affirmative action and forced school busing — but urged both sides to address the subject to find a way forward.
"Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now," Obama said. He said the controversies over the past couple of weeks "reflect the complexities of race in this country that we've never really worked through — a part of our union that we have yet to perfect. And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care, or education, or the need to find good jobs for every American."
Historians and others described the speech's candidness on race as almost without precedent. John Hope Franklin, a Duke University historian who led an advisory commission on race relations set up by President Bill Clinton, said Obama pointed out how easily the question of race can be distorted in this country, "which has three centuries of experience with it and yet we act like this is something new."
Julian Bond, the longtime civil rights activist, said the speech moved him to tears. Orlando Patterson, a professor of sociology at Harvard, said he believed the speech would "go down as one of the great, magnificent and moving speeches in the American political tradition."
"I hear so many people saying we want a national conversation on race but it’s never quite worked," he said. "He was able to do this in one speech. But he was able to do it in a nonpartisan way in that he saw both sides."