Barack Obama’s Philadelphia speech about race in America will go down alongside Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech as one of the most forthright, honest, and hopeful speeches in the last one hundred years of American history. Mr. Obama addressed the grievances of whites and blacks, the attitudes of whites and blacks, and the hopes of whites and blacks in a way that struck me mute.
In my class this year we are studying the broad sweep of human history on the planet. My underlying goal is that my students start to see that everywhere, throughout both time and space, humans have wanted the same things. A family in ancient China wanted to know it had firewood, drinking water, food, and protection from the Mongolian hordes. A family in Rome wanted firewood, drinking water, food, and protection from the Goths. A family in Selma today wants heat in the winter, safe water to drink, enough food on the table, and protection from al Queda.
Part of the genius of Obama’s speech today was that he was able to point to those underlying similarities between Americans of any race or ethnic background. He made it clear that we are much more alike than we are different. A leader that knows this truth in his or her heart has my vote.
Another element to his genius was his ability to tie us all together while at the same time recognizing the toll our history of slavery and division has exacted from us today. He is surely no pie-in-the-sky optimist, as he has been portrayed by Hillary Clinton. Instead, he is that rarest of politicians: the realistic optimist. He knows whites and blacks have their beefs. He knows their complaints are not to be glossed over. He knows, in fact, that there is a lot of hard work to be done if we are ever to match the promise of the words of the Constitution.
And still, he wants to be President. He WANTS the challenge of addressing these issues face-on and helping America and Americans become better--become who we are capable of being. The thought of the current occupant of the White House conceiving, writing, and delivering such a speech is beyond my meager imagination. After his speech today, Mr. Obama strikes me forcefully as America’s best hope for the next four years. He is not afraid to speak the truth to an electorate that has been underestimated for far too long. Today’s speech marks the real beginning of his march to victory in November.
The website Politico has a link to the full text of the speech.