This has been a remarkable morning. It started with a phone call from Tony Brown, a radio talk show host in Alexandria, La. On the show with me were Jerriel Bazile, whose brother stands accused of selling drugs to an FBI agent in Bunkie, La., and a woman whose son has been charged in a shooting. We talked about the adversarial relationship between the Bunkie police force and the poor black community. Yesterday, Mr. Bazile reported, 100 Bunkie residents gathered to protest and organize.
I ended the interview, showered and headed down to the ballroom of the Omni hotel in Washington, D.C., to listen to civil-rights historian Taylor Branch, Rev. Jesse Jackson and Roger Wilkins (an assistant U.S. Attorney in the Kennedy administration and relative of NAACP leader, Roy Wilkins) talk about the difficult relationship between politicians and movement leaders in the 1960s.
When the three men had concluded a lively and informative discussion, the crowd drained out of the room and a small band of enthusiasts gathered around the speakers. Jesse Jackson found himself face-to-face with an aggressive reporter from Fox News.
“Is this the end of the Obama candidacy,” the young white man was asking, his microphone thrusting forward–an assault with a deadly weapon. “Can the Obama candidacy recover from the incendiary and hateful remarks of Jeremiah Wright?” the reporter wanted to know. I sensed that the reporter devoutly wished it so.
“I simply believe that we need to make this a contest between candidates,” Jackson retorted. I was standing two feet away and his irritation was palpable. “We need to keep the comments of surrogates out of the discussion,” Jackson concluded. “This isn’t about them.”
Suddenly, a young black man was thrusting his own microphone into the face of the startled reporter. “Mr. Fox News, I have a question for you,” he barked. “Why aren’t you combing through the sermons of the preachers aligned with John McCain looking for controversial remarks? How come this is just about the black candidate? Answer me that, Mr. Fox News. What are you even doing here today?”
“Who are you with?” the man from Fox asked. The implied message was obvious: “I speak for a mainstream news organization, so I have a right to ask questions. You speak only for yourself, so you have the right to remain silent.”
Rev. Jackson brushed by me to break up a confrontation that was getting ugly.
I headed back to my room just in time to hear Barack Obama address his former pastor’s remarks head on.
It may be that my unusual morning made me unusually receptive, but my heart tells me that I just listened to one of the pivotal speeches of the early 21st century. Obama’s tone was earnest, sincere and unsentimental. He spoke as a man who has decided (in opposition to many of his handlers) to face the music and dance.
And what a dance! The Democratic presidential candidate from Illinois (and Kansas, and Hawaii, and Kenya) may be only person on American soil capable of addressing America’s racial demons without inviting hoots of outrage. He spoke of the frustration a generation of young black activists who came of age in the 1960s has experienced, and how it has enlightened and also blinded them. He spoke of the frustrations of blue collar white factory workers and how their private pain sometimes shades into bigotry. He spoke of the politicians who feed off the anger and ignorance of the misguided.
These comments were not made in a critical or dismissive spirit. Obama was talking about normal human beings responding to the pressures of life in perfectly predictable ways. Ordinary Americans of every racial background have made unfortunate mistakes, he acknowledged, but their concerns are not imaginary and their pain is real. We can’t transcend the racial impasse that defines America by siding with one set of grievances while ignoring others. Only the whole messy truth can bring us together.
Finally, Obama called for a new day and a better way. We can keep parsing the poll numbers to see if white males are abandoning one candidate for another or whether a rift is opening between whites and blacks or between blacks and Latinos, he said. And if we do that, when the next election cycle rolls around we will be blind-sided by the next distraction and then the next. Progress on the substantive issues will be impossible.
Obama has tried to avoid the issue of race because he knows that America is not prepared for that conversation. But he also knows that, regardless of the political consequences, the time for straight talk has arrived.
This is not a political blog, and Friends of Justice isn’t in the business of supporting or endorsing candidates. We are in the criminal justice reform business. But, as we learned from the Jena tragedy, the cruel machinery of mass incarceration will continue to grind until the various factions of the American community start talking honestly about the racial history of our nation. We can’t take a baby step forward until we acknowledge where we stand and how we got to this particular patch of ground.
From a strictly political perspective, Barack Obama’s speech may help him and it may hurt him; but the man started a conversation that only he could start. My most fervent prayer is that this is the beginning of a painful healing process our great nation needs so desperately.
Alan Bean is executive director of Friends of Justice, a faith-based organization that works on criminal-justice reform. This column appeared Tuesday on his blog.