Political strategists today were quick to parse how Democratic Sen. Barack Obama's sweeping speech about race and the American experience may affect his campaign to become the nation's first black presidential nominee.
But among African-American scholars and leaders, the post-speech talk wasn't of polls and focus groups but of witnessing history. Obama's words—about slavery, black anger, white resentment, and the imperative to move forward—harked back, they said, to those of Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln, and they deserve a similar place in history.
"This was his kairos moment," said the Rev. Alton Pollard, dean of Howard University's School of Divinity, using the ancient Greek word that characterizes moments that can alter destiny. It was, he said, Obama's particular "moment in time," and one that required him to lead.
"Race was never an issue that was going to disappear," Pollard said. "It's too much a part of our national fabric to think that we can gloss over it and move on without having to contend mightily with each other."
Obama was hastened to his kairos moment by incendiary comments made by his longtime friend and former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who in past sermons (videotaped and played endlessly over the past several days on television), had condemned the United States for its foreign policy and made other comments that have been viewed as anti-American. Obama has repudiated Wright's comments, and Wright stepped down from an advisory role in the campaign. In his speech, Obama again rejected some of the pastor's comments, but he also embraced much of Wright's powerful community ministry. And he bluntly talked about how a black man of Wright's generation could hold on to feelings of betrayal and discrimination, as well as how resentments could build in the white community.
That context was important for Americans to hear, says Walter Earl Fluker, executive director of the Leadership Center at Morehouse College and a prominent voice in the black community. And it's quite different from the context of the 1960s when King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.
"We have at least two, possibly three generations that have been born into this huge cultural void of memory," Fluker said, referring to Americans born between the 1960s and now. "So we take fragments of this past and base much of our understanding on these fragments." In today's context, Wright's fiery words—born, Fluker said, of the disappointments that followed the promise of the '60s—"seem very, very hard and harsh."
Obama, son of a black father and white mother, stepped into that cultural void, both Fluker and Pollard say, attempted to reconcile the old with the new, and challenged the country to do better—not to remain static, or fixed along racial lines. "Senator Obama was clearly caught in that matrix, and he was the right person to be caught," Pollard said. "Just as with Lincoln and Dr. King, you have in Obama a person who is able to stand in that gap at a moment when the nation is at one of its most difficult junctures."
Says Fluker: "He has critiqued the grandiose way in which we've allowed race to play out, not just in politics, but in our day-to-day life."
But how will this resonate long-term, especially after it gets tossed around in what African-American historian Robin D. G. Kelley called the spin cycle of the media and the opposition?
Kelley, a professor at the University of Southern California and, at 46, a contemporary of Obama's, said the speech was "truly historic."
"I was inspired," Kelley said, "and I'm a skeptic. But this is a turning point in this campaign." Obama's message, he says, is not just about transformation in the black American but about "real change in the heart and culture of America."
The power of Obama's speech was as much about who he is as it was about his words, Kelley said. "I don't think anyone in the position he's in has ever had the opportunity to make the statement that he's made."
In Fluker's estimation, win or lose the Democratic nomination, Obama today did something special for the nation: "Like King in the past, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression, he spoke directly to the complexity of the issue at hand, and translated it so it's part of our nation's story."