Obama: Only in unity can we find justice and King's dream

T.A. Barnhart

I have a lot of reasons for supporting Barack Obama, and I'm not ashamed to say that a major one of these is that he makes me feel good. He does not tell me the things I want to hear, confirming what I already think I know so I can stop thinking unpleasant thoughts about all the bad stuff. He does not tell me everything is going to be just fine. He doesn't assure me that my worst fears are soon to pass so it's ok to hate the fuckers who are ruining everything. He does not give me permission to give up and hide in front of the tv.

When I listen to Barack Obama speak, and I hear his message of hope and change, I feel good because I know that in the struggle to keep the world from going to crap for all time, there is someone I can look to, with confidence, for leadership and hope. I know his life story, his background; I know the kind of politics he's practiced. His great speeches — the 2004 Convention, the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, "Yes we can" — are confirmations of what an Obama presidency can make possible. And because his words open in me the hope that such a person could be the President of the United States one year from today, that makes me feel good. I have hope that something better is ahead, however unlikely or difficult it may be to make that happen. Just to have that hope, the goal, the possibility, is enough to make me feel good and to keep me going.

Obama's words at Ebenezer Baptist Church today made me feel very good. On the most superficial level, I love how thoughtful and intelligent he is; how wonderful it would be to have a man of his abilities in the White House. I felt good to know he can speak from his heart and speak with words that are clear, sharp and necessary:

Unfortunately, all too often when we talk about unity in this country, we’ve come to believe that it can be purchased on the cheap. We’ve come to believe that racial reconciliation can come easily — that it’s just a matter of a few ignorant people trapped in the prejudices of the past, and that if the demagogues and those who exploit our racial divisions will simply go away, then all our problems would be solved.

All too often, we seek to ignore the profound institutional barriers that stand in the way of ensuring opportunity for all children, or decent jobs for all people, or health care for those who are sick. We long for unity, but are unwilling to pay the price.

But of course, true unity cannot be so easily won. It starts with a change in attitudes — a broadening of our minds, and a broadening of our hearts.

He did not fear, either, to call out other black Christians on issues where many of them, in his opinion, fall short:

We have scorned our gay brothers and sisters instead of embracing them. The scourge of anti-Semitism has, at times, revealed itself in our community. For too long, some of us have seen immigrants as competitors for jobs instead of companions in the fight for opportunity.

Advocacy for gay rights is not welcome in many African-American churches, but Obama believes in justice, not to mention his God's love, for all people (so, too, does his church in Chicago). And he speaks up for what he believes without hesitation. This is a leader I can follow, a person who inspires, a candidate I can support.

A President of whom I won't be ashamed.

And as I listened to him speak of those who joined together over forty years ago to bring down the walls of injustice and fight for civil rights, I saw something new: Myself, part of that on-going struggle for justice. A 51-year-old white man in Portland, Oregon, one of the whitest states in America, and I'm part of the same struggle Dr King gave his life for. I believe in those values, believe in the goals, the dream; I am part of the struggle because if I am not then I stand in opposition to what all those amazing people did, and I cannot do that. I have never once thought of myself as part of the civil rights movement but the movement has not ended, and I can either join it or oppose it. There is no middle ground; there is no apathy or agnostism.

Barack Obama, speaking 3,000 miles away from me, opened my eyes to my role in the continuing story that is the American fight for "liberty and justice for all." Howard Dean, my political hero and a man to whom I will be forever grateful, opened my eyes to the truth that I can be an active, effective citizen and work to take my country back from those who would steal its wealth and promise. Obama took me further and deeper. Obama connected me with history.

The first Barnhart to come to America did so ten generations back, before this country was a nation. Daniel Barnhart fled religious persecution in Europe; he and his family risked their lives to worship God as they believed right. Did later Barnharts support the cause of abolition? I hope so. I know one distant relation fought for the Union as a sixteen-year-old man. I own nearly three hundred years of my father's father's family in the country, and that's an exciting thing.

But to be a part of Martin Luther King's struggle — that is breath-taking. I have tried to do what I could in the past, especially in supporting the rights of the GLBT community. But what I've done is give a little time, a little thought, a few words. I have done so little, in part, because I have seen my role as small, insignificant, almost pointless. But Barack Obama's words opened my eyes today. I am only as small as I allow myself to be. I am insignificant only if I hide my light under a bushel, if I keep my voice silent, if I do not walk the walls in unity and lift my voice at the appointed hour.

I support Barack Obama not because his policies are the best, or because he's the right change from Bush, or for any of the myriad reasons usually given or sought. I support him because no person in my lifetime has made me aware of my role in history as he (I was only 11 when MLK and Bobby died). Because of Barack Obama, I see that I am not one of some three-hundred-million-plus citizens, expendable and vanishingly insignificant. I am as necessary and vital as the greatest person to whom we look up. My feet are needed to walk around the walls of injustice, and my voice is needed to bring them down. Those of us who care about our country and want to see things get better long for a person who can do for us what Barack Obama does for me: Open my eyes to my place in history, literally alongside Dr King in a battle that has been fought for centuries and in which so much gain has been made in my lifetime and yet so much remains to be done. For the first time in my life, there is someone I can actually believe in, and the man who taught me this lesson about myself and what I must do for those I share my country with, that's a person I cannot help but support for President.

And because he tells me it's not going to be easy, that those with power are going to fight us every step of the way, that there are no simple solutions, I am pretty confident I'm not getting suckered, either. The man respects our intelligence as well as our humanity.

That is the person we need in the White House one year from today.

You can watch the speech at C-Span, but they make their videos difficult to link to. It's currently on the homepage and then listed as "Campaign Event in Atlanta". Make the effort.

  • LT (unverified)

    Thanks, TA. I was hoping someone would post this.

  • Daniel Spiro (unverified)

    Before New Hampshire, the media was falling all over itself to praise Obama for his soaring rhetoric. Now, it seems, it is only covering negative campaigning by the Clinton and Obama campaigns. That is so sad, because Obama is a truly gifted speaker, and he is just the type of person who can inspire the people of this country to support necessary changes ... and not merely to kill bills (as in the immigration bill disaster).

    If Obama loses, I believe it would be a terrible tragedy for this country. And it's not because Obama's "positions" are much different than Edwards' or Clinton's, it's because Obama is the one who can sell those left-of-center positions to the nation at large. With the other candidates, I just see four (or eight) more years of gridlock. [Well, candidly, that's what I'd see if Edwards were to win. With a Clinton victory, I see McCain winning in November, and he might actually enact some positive changes ... then again, I suspect he'd do some damage in other areas as well, including as others have pointed out, to the courts.]

  • Christian (unverified)

    Hi T.A Barnhart I'm simply waiting for this type of post form long time by the God's grace I just got it from your post of Obama it's great to get it now, and I completely agree that only in unity we can find justice and King's dream and I thank for this.

  • Kurt Chapman (unverified)

    Well, he certainly has successfully "borrowed" the catch phrase Si se puede from another group.

    I do not discount Obama's gifted ability at rhetoric. However, what of substance and specifics has anyone heard. Jimmy carter was able to show us all that it takes more than a sincere desire to change things to actually accomplish change.

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    thanks, Kurt, for demonstrating how easy it is to spread the lie that Obama has no substance. of course, if you listened to a basic stump speech, visit his website, watch a debate, read some articles, you'd find Obama, like Hillary & Edwards, has a substantial platform. he has plenty of specifics, and your rhetorical device is a cheat. if you don't support him, just say that. and say why you do support another candidate. but don't use one of the classic dirty tricks, a variant of the straw man, to "prove" the lack of substance.

  • Bill R. (unverified)

    Great speech at Dr. King's Church. I suspect many Americans are afraid to trust, afraid to be inspired and lifted up to the best in us all. We've been betrayed so many times, and the trauma of 1968 is embedded in the American soul. Whether you lived through that time or not, it is still in the American psyche. I still weep at the rembrance of Dr. King and the loss of Bobby Kennedy, great healers of our time, cut down so young. We were betrayed on Iraq by our own leaders, Repub and Dems. In 40 years I have not found an American leader who can inspire, challenge, and lift my conscience like Sen. Obama. The politics of cynicism and hostility are seductive. I guess the question for me is can the Dem. party and the American people believe in itself and its "better angels" or not? I am old enough that I like like hope much better than despair, and I don't want to vote any more for least worst candidate. Here's the URL for Sen. Obama's speech. http://my.barackobama.com/page/community/post/rospars/CGCXL

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    "The division, the stereotypes, the scapegoating, the ease with which we blame the plight of ourselves on others — all of that distracts us from the common challenges we face: war and poverty, injustice and inequality. We can no longer afford to build ourselves up by tearing each other down."

  • Matthew Sutton (unverified)

    Thanks TA, and Senator Obama for these inspiring words on this important day.

  • Matthew Sutton (unverified)

    Here's a link to the video of this historic speech.

  • DeanOR (unverified)

    Obama gets much right in his Jericho address, but there is a disturbing flaw in his rhetoric, his use of King's legacy, and his wall metaphor. He is a great speaker. He had me misty-eyed at one point. He names many of our problems correctly, but he has no opponent other than abstract issues, attitudes and "division". He does name insurance companies and drug companies, easy targets, as opponents. Otherwise, the forces stone-walling progress today have no faces or names in Obama World, the wall just crumbles when you achieve unity. Who is putting up that wall of Jericho and keeping it up? It isn't just internal, within the minds of all of us as he says. King was not opposed to division, he welcomed it as a way to show that his guys were right and the others guys were wrong. King called for unity among "people of good will" but did not expect to achieve unity with the white citizens councils (the KKK dressed up in suits), rather he fought them. Obama lists division between political parties in the same sentence with division along race and gender lines, as something to be overcome. Yet we have an opposition in right-wing Republicanism that thinks bipartisanship, or post-partisanship or whatever you want to call it, means we give them everything they want, after which they dice and broil us, eat us for lunch, and spit out the bones. We're not going to overcome the war-mongers, religious right, and neo-cons by changing attitudes or by emulating Reagan or distorting history. Who is Obama preaching to? We know who has the most divisive attitudes, who lacks empathy, who tortures and undermines the Constitution, who hates virulently, who wants to dismantle government programs that address the issues he lists, and who wants to use government to favor the wealthy and their lobbyists instead - and it isn't progressives or liberal Democrats. Listening to him, I want to like Obama and believe in him, but it doesn't work for me when I listen to my inner voices, the same inner self that he tries to appeal to; it is the classic double bind. I have been around for a while. I saw and heard MLK and even walked with him once. I never felt this ambivalence with him that I feel with Obama. (I'm not saying any of this because I'm committed to another candidate at this point; I'm not.)

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    DeanOR, if you cannot identify what Obama is focused on specifically, you've simply not done the homework. the Ebenezer address was not about specific policy issues, but he addresses these regularly. his website has very specific issues. he may not be as wonked-out as Hillary, but he's got an excellent handle on most issues. i don't know what you're complaining about here. that he's not King? that he didn't name names yesterday? or did you not hear him say that he wants unity among those who oppose injustice -- not that he wants "everyone" to join together. he expects, as he said, severe opposition, not from the KKK but the corporations and others who want to retain power.

    it's very trendy to say Obama is light on specifics, but it's simply not true.

  • Kurt Chapman (unverified)

    t.a. rather than attack why not convince? I have seen nothing of pure substantive material from Obama with the exception of his proposal for Health Care. everything else boils down to a Rodney Kingese "can't We All Get Along" panoply. I want to learn more about Obama, I am trying to decide.

    So far I know I am not ever going to vote for Hilliary; that I like edwards and would also support McCain. Until or unless Obama is able to get more specific I will have to contonue admiring his rhetoric and wondering about his follow through.

  • Gil Johnson (unverified)

    How can any rational, informed person like Edwards and also support McCain? Those two guys are polar opposites on almost any issue.

  • Andrew (unverified)

    DeanOR: Obama lists division between political parties in the same sentence with division along race and gender lines, as something to be overcome. Yet we have an opposition in right-wing Republicanism that thinks bipartisanship, or post-partisanship or whatever you want to call it, means we give them everything they want, after which they dice and broil us, eat us for lunch, and spit out the bones.

    I hear what you're saying, and I agree...to a point. The Republican leadership that has come up in the past 10-15 years will never be swayed by Obama's rhetoric, and "post-partisan" compromise won't work with them, either.

    But Obama's not talking about uniting with the Tom DeLays of the world, I think he's talking about re-connecting with average Americans who have been swindled by the DeLays, the Bushes, and the Cheyneys. As Thomas Frank argued in "What's the Matter With Kansas?", millions of working- and middle-class Americans have been cajoled into supporting right-wing politicians who turn around and cut vital services while giving tax breaks to the rich. This has been accomplished mostly by scaring the s*#! out of ordinary people; telling them that their jobs, marriages, and personal secuirty are threatened by immigrants, homosexuals, and terrorists. In other words: exploiting our differences and appealing to base instincts of self-preservation.

    I think the hope in Obama's message is in giving those ordinary Americans an alternative to the GOP leadership that has betrayed them. The idea is not to bludgeon congressional Republicans into submission, but to draw down their support by building a platform that reaches out to ordinary folks in "red America"--that is, by uniting across party lines.

    This is a very different approach than HRC's, but no less valid. He's a community organizer at heart, and she's a triangulator. The differences show up in their rhetoric, and in their broader campaigns. The past few weeks have shown that Hillary (and Bill) are all too happy to exploit our differences for short-term political gain. I honestly have no idea which model will prevail, but personally, I'm hoping for Obama's "strength in unity" over Clinton's "divide and conquer."

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    The King Day speech seems to me to be rather more complex that Obama's usual invocations of unity and bringing people together (though he may be making similar speeches in South Carolina). The reason is that he is addressing two audiences simultaneously -- a black audience, and a general audience (which also includes black people).

    So some of the "unity" he was invoking yesterday was explicitly the unity of African-Americans in their continuing struggles, in part a response to some black critics who argue that Obama has abandoned the agenda of specific black needs (a.k.a. "not making race an issue," per the white-dominated press, treated as a source of "unity"). I think it is great that it inspired T.A. Barnhart to identify with that part of what he was saying, and to see himself as part of the continuing struggle for equality. And those parts were reasonably well-aligned with Martin Luther King's statements on such unity I think.

    But at other points he still was invoking his broader appeals for unity & bringing people together & non-partisanship and so on. And as DeanOR has suggested, those broader thematics at best sit uneasily with King's approaches to the struggle for social justice beyond civil rights.

    To me the point is not that Obama lacks specifics -- although his website has no search function so you can't find out what he thinks about anything not framed in his big issue brackets or in the misnamed Answers section that is really a glorified FAQ list. (I know because in response to something Chuck Butcher wrote I went to try to find his position on gun control/2nd amendment issues, & it's not on the site). Obama has plenty of specifics, and a lot of them go too far for my taste into premature compromises with corporate interests -- if this is where he's starting, the process will pull the outcome even further in the business direction. But that will be variations in detail and not kind from Clinton.

    To me the point is that Obama makes unity a good in itself, and defines it too much in terms of compromise. There's a reason why the word compromise has a positive air. But there's also a reason why we say that someone failing to achieve a standard, or blocked from doing so by divided commitments, is "compromised". Obama shows little concern for the risk of the latter.

    On this, Obama is quite different from King. King rejected claims that he should compromise in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail to a group of white ministers. He did not mince words in criticizing what needed criticism -- consider this passage from early in the "I Have a Dream" speech. Referring to the promises of equality in the nation's founding documents, he said:

    It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."

    I cannot imagine Barack Obama saying anything like that. His whole "unity" campaign is partly premised on not saying things like that, which tend to make many white folks uncomfortable. And they still do need to be said, because while at the behest of King's movement and invoking the memory of the martyred JFK to go farther than Kennedy either wanted to or could have politically in 1964, Lyndon Johnson got Congress to write a partial payment at the level of formal equality before the law, the substance of equality still has not been created and the quest for it largely has been abandoned.

    Later in the speech, King said:

    We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.

    How easily does that sit with Barack Obama's idea of what it means to bring people together, with, say his temporizing and advocacy of less than universal healthcare, with his compromises in energy and global warming on coal-fired power plants and the gradualist cap-and-trade approach to corporate carbon emissions, as opposed to a carbon tax?

    While Obama certainly would agree with King's endpoint in this section, would he ever speak so clearly about the obstacles to getting there, name the true character of the people in the way? Wouldn't it be too divisive?:

    I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right down in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

    Now if Obama gets a T.A. Barnhard to see himself as part of the continuing movement for racial equality, and that lasts and T.A. acts on it, and lots of other people do too, and do so seriously enough that they accept that they are going to feel uncomfortable along the way, that would be good, and prove my fears about Obama wrong. It is tremendous that he has had that effect on even one person.

    But I lack faith it happening more widely, or lasting, because on other days than MLK Day, Obama isn't asking this of us. Barack Obama says he's asking me to believe, right on the top of every page of his website among other places, but I don't. I can't. I'm not a person of faith, in several senses. This separates me from Martin Luther King, Jr. in a different way from how Obama is separated, for Obama's call for faith is close to King's, at least at times.

    King's views about unity were complex, and deeply rooted in his Christianity and his vocation as a minister. He knew well the passage from Matthew 10:34 that the King James translation of the bible renders "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword." In the context of a faith I don't share with King, that is a truth claim: "I have come to proclaim the truth, and the truth is divides." And it gives Jesus' wider advocacy of peace and lovingkindness an edge -- it is not peace at all costs. As King put it, "peace is not the absence of violence but the presence of justice." And getting to justice is not always a unifying process along the way.

    King saw justice in terms of divine judgment. Both in Letter from a Birmingham Jail and in his at Selma, Alabama in 1965, after an episode of brutally vicious police violence against a march to Montgomery, King invoked "The Battle Hymn of the Republic", not a conciliatory or compromising choice in a South where whites were resurrecting the Confederate battle flag and putting in their state flags (remember that the next time someone says it's about "heritage not hate").

    Mine eyes have seen the coming of the glory of the coming of the Lord He is trampling out the vineyards where the grapes of wrath are stored He has loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword His truth is marching on

    In doing so, King was invoking the old radical abolitionist view of the Civil War as a great judgment upon the nation for our collective sin of slavery. In the song there is a chilling sort of joyous bloodthirstiness, or can be; when King spoke the words their tragic sense was stronger.

    But still, King spoke frequently of struggle. In a certain sense he was an existentialist, a fatalist, about the necessity of struggle in this world, for perfection as he saw things lay beyond this world; yet he saw the consequence of his faith in salvation from human imperfection the necessity of following the injunction to pursue justice and love in emulation of Jesus, action that does not in itself save, but is necessary to embody the faith that does, as he saw things.

    King's goal was not division. We know the phrases it is more popular to remember from the "I Have a Dream" speech. His other speeches are replete with similar images, all set in an imagined and rather distant future, not perhaps as unreachable as heaven, but no easy walk either. Still, the goal remained. As he also said at Selma:

    Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding. We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. And that will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man.

    That, more or less, I can imagine Barack Obama saying. And if he can help us move closer to being a society with some legitimate claim to a right to live with its conscience, rather than our current soporified complacency, more power to him, or them.

    But I greatly fear that Barack Obama may not be willing or able to challenge us to see that our current self-satisfaction is unearned, that we should not be able to live with our conscience as a nation, as things stand. I fear that before we really can move there, our conscience must first be revived, our complacency punctured. And I just don't have faith that Barack Obama understands that task, or would accept its necessity if he did. Right now, all of the ways he talks about unity through compromise tell me, probably not.

    In a different way, I'm also not sure whether he'd be up to the task if he took it on, not that I know who would, though I think if he did try, he'd give it his best shot.

    But maybe he will prove me wrong, if he wins. I hope so. The hope with which I hope so is not the hope he inspires in so many others, though. Rather it is a hope against hope.

    T.A. Barnhard in one of the comments rightly questions whether holding Barack Obama up to the standard of Martin Luther King, Jr. is fair or the right standard. I accept that and it may be a fair criticism against some of what I've written here. On the other hand, the passion of some of his true believers makes me think this is a problem from another angle, and I wonder what will happen if he is elected and hopes pumped up to that level are not followed through.

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    Oh, on gradualism vs. the fierce urgency of Now, I forgot the occupation war in Iraq, and getting out of it. Silly me.

    <h2>Obama's timeline would take it at least to the end of 2010, though that's better than Clinton, who says only that we should start pulling out troops.</h2>

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