One hundred and fifty years ago this June, a lanky Illinois lawyer turned politician gave a speech that changed the way Americans talked about the great racial issues of their day.
The lawyer was Abraham Lincoln, and the speech was the famous “House Divided” address with which he accepted the Republican Party’s nomination as a candidate for the U.S. Senate. Lincoln lost to Stephen Douglas, but the address changed the national conversation on slavery and, two years later, Lincoln was on his way from Springfield to the White House.
America’s political story is studded with such addresses -- historical signposts that divide that which went before from all that followed on an issue of crucial national importance. Franklin Roosevelt’s “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” speech fundamentally changed Americans’ expectations of their government in times of social and economic crisis. John F. Kennedy’s address on Catholicism and politics to the Greater Houston Ministerial Assn. in 1960 forever altered the way we think about religion and public office.
Sen. Barack Obama, another lanky lawyer from Illinois, planted one of those rhetorical markers in the political landscape Tuesday, when he delivered his “More Perfect Union” speech in Philadelphia, near Independence Hall. The address was meant to dampen the firestorm of criticism that has attached itself to the senator’s campaign since video clips of race-baiting remarks by his Chicago church’s former pastor began circulating last week.
But instead of offering a simple exercise in damage control, Obama chose to place his discussion of the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright’s incendiary comments in a wider consideration of race in America -- and the results were, like those Kennedy achieved in Houston, historic.
Just as every seasoned political hand in 1960 knew that, sooner or later, Kennedy would have to tackle the question of his Catholicism head-on, it’s been clear for some time that Obama would have to speak explicitly to the question of race in this campaign. Still, polished orator that he may be, no one could have predicted an address of quite this depth and scope.
“That was the most sophisticated speech on race and politics I’ve ever heard,” said CNN’s Bill Schneider, the only network pundit who actually has taught American political history at elite universities.
It was all the more remarkable because, while Kennedy presided over what may have been the greatest speech-writing team in electoral history, Obama -- like Lincoln -- wrote his address himself, completing the final draft Monday night.
Obama did what he had to do, unequivocally repudiating Wright’s extreme rhetoric. But what was truly radical about his analysis was his implicit demand that black and white Americans accept the imperfection of each other’s views on race. Embedded in such acceptance is the seed of that “more perfect union” toward which this country -- unquestionably great but itself imperfect -- must strive.
It was a concept that Obama subtly invoked near the beginning of the speech by pointing to the fact that although the Constitution “was stained by the original sin of slavery,” the “answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution -- a Constitution that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.”
Theologically, original sin is the source of man’s fallen nature and the root of his imperfection. Obama went on to build on that concept, invoking the authority of his own mixed heritage -- son of a black immigrant father and white mother, raised by a loving white grandmother -- and refusing to reject either Wright, a man of good works as well as extreme rhetoric, or his loving grandmother, who was prone to racial stereotypes. Obama demanded that black anger make an allowance for white anxiety and that white resentment make a place for black grievance.
No candidate for national office has ever spoken so candidly or realistically about race as it is lived as a fact of life in America. As he put it Tuesday, “The profound mistake of Rev. Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country ... is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past.”