Eleven and a half months ago – and God, I can’t believe it’s been that long – I watched Barack Obama rally a crowd of nearly 3,000 at Columbia, South Carolina’s convention center. It was the week after he’d entered the race and pundits were still amazed at the size of the audiences he could draw, and their diversity: more than half of that crowd was white with about 40% were black and 10% Asian – though many of those Asians were Indians attending a massive formal wedding in the room next door and had drifted over, curious.
The day before his arrival two well known local black State Senators, Darrell Jackson and Robert Ford, withdrew their support for former North Carolina Senator John Edwards and endorsed Hillary Clinton. The papers were full of stories about how the move represented a blow to Obama’s black appeal and how Ford had told a reporter that, electorially, it was impossible for a black man to become president. Ford that morning had withdrawn his comments and apologized but Obama zeroed in on them.
“I’ve been reading the papers in South Carolina,” Obama, yelled over a booing crowd. They say we “can’t have a black man at the top of the ticket. But I know this: that when folks were saying, ‘We’re going to march for our future,’ they said, ‘You can’t do that,’” the audience roared its response, falling into a cadence often seen in black churches: “Yes, we can!”
“When somebody said, ‘Don’t sit at the lunch counter, don’t stir up trouble, you can’t do that.’ And we did,” Obama said. “Yes we can,” chanted the crowd.
“And when somebody said, ‘Women belong in the kitchen not in the board room, you can’t do that,’” Obama said. “Yes we can,” came the response.
That day Obama invoked Martin Luther King Jr., a quote he often cited in his early speeches. “It reminds me something Dr. King once said, two weeks after bloody Sunday,” Obama said. “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
A year later and Obama has come full circle. Standing in the same room before a crowd of 3,500 tonight Obama reminisced.
“It has almost been a year since I was in this building. There may have been a few of you who were here back then.,” he said as a healthy number in the crowd cheered. “You know that was shortly after I’d announced that I was running for president. I stood on the steps of the old state capitol of Springfield, Illinois and I announced this unlikely journey to change America. Now, I have to say that I did not chose to run because of some long held ambitions, I know people have been going thru my kindergarten papers. I did not decide to run because I felt it was owed to me. I decided to run because of what Dr. King called, ‘the fierce urgency of now.’ Because I believe there’s such a thing of being too late. “
This time around the crowd was a little more than half black, 40% white and about 10% Asian – the Indians made a comeback, this time sans saris. A lot of people have said that Obama rarely talks about the historic nature of his candidacy and that he avoids it in order to “transcend” race. I would disagree with that – he often invokes race and Dr. King whether he’s talking about the ‘arc of the moral universe,’ the march in Selma, the ‘fierce urgency of now,’ even his “Fired Up, Ready to Go!” story has its roots in civic organizing. What he doesn’t do, though, is get angry when he talks about race. He focuses on the achievements and the hope for the future and leaves behind the sense of injustice, the intolerance and the anger that has marked the campaigns of so many other black politicians.