Obama's rhetoric on responsibility has local echoes

July 20, 2008|By C. Fraser Smith

While she was reviving the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter in Baltimore, Lillie May Jackson was regarded as something of a screamer. She was in the face of authority so persistently that white judges, among others, kept a wary eye out for her.

"Find out what Mrs. Jackson wants and get it for her," they said - or words to that effect.

About all she could do to back her demands in those days was raise her voice. Black voting strength was insufficient to win concessions, and there was little, if any, black representation in government.

Since those difficult and potentially dangerous days, black voices - and strategic thinking - have gained considerable power. Laws and attitudes have changed. Black men and women serve at every level of government.

An African-American, Sen. Barack Obama, is about to become the Democratic Party's nominee for president of the United States.

Still, the old civil rights tactics endure. They will, no doubt, be employed into the future as civil rights activists figure out exactly what tone to employ in a world where a black man's talent and character have put him in a position to occupy the White House.

In recent weeks, the evolutionary process has been working itself out in public. The old and new guards have seemed to collide on the national stage. The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson suggested that Mr. Obama should be censured - or worse - for "talking down" to black people.

Mr. Obama didn't see it that way at all.

"I know there are some who have been saying I have been too tough talking about responsibility," Mr. Obama said during an address to the NAACP's national convention in Cincinnati last week. Mr. Jackson's rebuke gave him an opportunity to show personal resolve and to press an important point for his campaign.

"No matter how much money we invest in our communities, how many 10-point plans we propose, how many government programs we launch - none of it will make a difference, at least not enough of a difference, if at the same time we do not seize more responsibility in our own lives," he said.

These remarks were greeted with approval by the assembled delegates. This was, to be sure, a sophisticated audience. With his remarks carried on television, the candidate was addressing a mostly white, general election audience that may have been watching to see if he were willing to define himself as the president of black America alone. (What he said about responsibility, of course, could be directed to other ethnic groups as well.)

Here were watershed moments in American political rhetoric. He was saying some things others, black and white, might have thought but dared not say. He has earned the credibility. And, it must be said, he is echoing things that have been said by others for some time.

Bill Cosby, the comedian, was the most famous national figure to urge young black men to adopt personas that might give them an opportunity to find a job - to pull their trousers up, speak in a reasonable facsimile of English and go to school. Mr. Cosby didn't get the pass Mr. Obama is getting, but he wasn't running for president with a good shot at winning.

In Baltimore, Sheila Dixon urged audiences to take care of their children when she was running for mayor. State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy says black Baltimoreans must take more responsibility for the education of their children. Then-Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark spoke angrily at the funeral of a policeman about the need for more black opposition to criminal activity in city neighborhoods.

Mr. Obama takes this position for at least one other reason, says Del. Shawn Z. Tarrant of Baltimore, a freshman lawmaker and neighborhood leader in West Baltimore. Expectations of an Obama presidency could grow out of proportion, he said.

"He has to be careful about false expectations - the idea that he'll be able to deliver a huge reparation check and you'll be right back where you would have been if all that bad stuff didn't happen," he said. Problems of race have not been solved, he said, but change has come in many areas - including civil rights leadership. Mr. Obama is standing on Mr. Jackson's shoulders.

He promised change, and he's delivering it in the language of politics, civil rights and race relations.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM, is author of the new book "Here Lies Jim Crow: Civil Rights in Maryland." His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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