Headlines, Human Rights, North America

POLITICS-US: The Day Character Finally Eclipsed Colour

Bankole Thompson

DETROIT, Michigan, Nov 10 2008 (IPS) - Last Tuesday’s ascension of Democratic Sen. Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States – the first African American in history to command the White House – sent a shock wave around the world that a political change of such magnitude could happen in a nation often traumatised by racism.

Jubilant Obama supporters in downtown Detroit. Credit: Bankole Thompson/IPS

Jubilant Obama supporters in downtown Detroit. Credit: Bankole Thompson/IPS

But observers and civil rights deputies see Obama as simply the product of a dream made public on Aug. 28, 1963, before the March on Washington when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. pleaded with the United States that he hoped one day his children would not be hindered by the colour of their skin. Instead King said his children should be judged based on the content of their character.

The son of a black man from the East African nation of Kenya and a white woman from Kansas, Obama’s massive defeat of Republican Sen. John McCain – capturing 364 electoral votes to McCain’s 162 – is being viewed in the context of King’s didactic “I Have a Dream” speech delivered 40 years ago.

“It’s a really important watershed and a climatic moment which shows that change has come,” said former King top aide Dr. Bernard LaFayette Jr. in a phone interview with IPS from Bethlehem in the West Bank. “It was already in the hearts of people that the election of Barack Obama brought out the best in people. It was not unrelated to the difficult campaign and battle we had in the 1960s.”

LaFayette, who leads the Centre for Non-Violence and Peace Studies at the University of Rhode Island, was a member of King’s executive staff and served as the national coordinator of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign with King.

“People said everything they could to discredit and try to convince the American people that he [Obama] was not the best and they even went to say he was dangerous and tried to associate him with terrorists,” LaFayette said. “What was ironic was that here was a U.S. senator voted by the people of Illinois to represent them and was [later] chosen by the Democratic Party as their candidate and they tried to say he was not American.”


King, he said, was also accused of many of the things Obama was accused of.

“King was accused of being a communist when he was a Baptist preacher. They said he knew nothing about foreign affairs when he took a stance against the war in Vietnam,” LaFayette said. “Even some black ministers and their groups, like the National Baptist Convention, did not accept King because they were against his integration message.”

The trials Obama went through were a real test of his character, LaFayette said. “Most people did not read his book. What they saw was his character more than his colour and how he responded to the false accusations.”

In Detroit, where King first delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at Cobo Hall before the March on Washington, 26-year-old Eddie Connor, host of the Youth on the March show on 1500AM radio, called Tuesday’s victory a “historical marriage between the philosophies of Dr. King and president-elect Obama.”

“He’s [Obama] been able to do what King had done where in some cases he moved beyond race to relationships, bringing young people together despite their race,” Connar said. “I truly believe that president-elect Obama has reenergised the focus and fire of the young people in America.”

In January, during the fight for the Democratic nomination, Obama began to address race in the campaign at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where King and his father once preached.

“Every day, our politics fuels and exploits this kind of division across all races and regions; across gender and party. None of our hands are clean,” Obama said. “We can no longer afford to build ourselves up by tearing someone else down. We can no longer afford to traffic in lies or fear or hate. It is the poison that we must purge from our politics; the wall that we must tear down before the hour grows too late.”

Robert Johnson, an Atlanta resident, said the implication of the U.S. presidential election results goes beyond its symbolic nature.

“It shows that people who are disenfranchised and working families can find their way into the ‘American Dream’. That is why this election has generated so much excitement than any election I have seen,” Johnson said. “Atlanta’s exuberance, level of joy among people of all races and persuasions has been so vividly expressed and you could see it in the streets.”

But LaFayette maintained that it should not be lost in the celebration that the United States voted for a man who had character.

“Although his skin was black people did not come out and say, ‘we want a black president’. What they said was ‘we want someone who will help get us out of this problem’,” LaFayette said. “Obama’s colour became dwarfed. They saw the colour of his heart and someone they could trust.”

The civil rights deputy said he had not believed he’d be alive to see a black person elected president of the world’s leading superpower.

“I have been surprised in my lifetime to see people who were elected president in this country, like the Bushes. We made great progress with John F. Kennedy and even Jimmy Cater,” LaFayette said. “But we had great setbacks and I was disappointed and pessimistic.”

 
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