From Selma to Obama

Posted: Mar 02, 2007 12:01 AM
From Selma to Obama

This Sunday, as politicians and civil rights activists commemorate ``Bloody Sunday,'' Selma, Alabama, once again becomes home to a perhaps historic shift in America's racial evolution.

It's a subtle shift, but significant -- and possibly profound.

First, flash back to March 7, 1965, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where about 600 African-Americans, led by Hosea Williams and then-25-year-old John Lewis, now a Democratic congressman from Georgia, were beaten and tear-gassed by state and local police.

Lewis, clubbed in the head, was among 50 marchers hospitalized that day.

Bloody Sunday, more than any other day, marked the beginning of a transformation that is still unfolding. Once racial hatred was revealed as brutal and bloody, there was no turning back.

By March 24, when demonstrators successfully completed the journey from Selma to Montgomery, the number of marchers had swelled to 25,000 and included the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who delivered his famous ``How Long, Not Long'' speech from the capitol steps in Montgomery.

Fast-forward to March 4, 2007. Lewis and other civil rights veterans, including Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, are being joined in Selma by presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the annual day of commemoration.

For these two Democratic candidates, both vying for the black vote, Selma is a command performance. But which of the two will prevail?

Clinton -- wife of a former president beloved by the African-American community who is, herself, forging a new path as possibly the first woman president?

Or Obama -- who though black, is not ``one of us,'' as black columnist Stanley Crouch put it?

Sharpton, too, has implied that Obama doesn't quite pass the black-like-us test. ``Just because you are our color doesn't make you our kind,'' Sharpton said recently, leaving open his own possible bid for the presidency.

As it happened, Sharpton was told last week that he is descended from slaves owned by relatives of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, the erstwhile segregationist who once fathered a child with his family's black housekeeper.

Just in the nick of time, Sharpton was able to bolster his bona fides as A Black Man in America and remind voters that plantation blacks share a different narrative than blacks like Obama.

Though of African descent via his Kenyan father, Obama is half white and is not descended of slaves. He doesn't share that heritage, nor did he pay his dues in the civil rights movement.

In fact, Obama has made clear that he is a new generation of American black. He doesn't have to genuflect to the civil rights period, nor is he tethered to a heritage that seems at times to hold others hostage.

It is precisely Obama's ability to address America's broader needs -- black and white, red and blue -- that makes him accessible and acceptable (and nonthreatening) to whites weary of the burden of the nation's racist past.

He is, in other words, that next generation history has been waiting for.

Whatever his politics, Obama is the prize that men like Lewis bled for and for whom Martin Luther King died. Just two generations after passage of the Voting Rights Act, a black man is a serious contender for the presidency.

It should come as no surprise that some civil rights-era leaders, whose identities are so closely tied to those earlier days, would resist embracing this new fellow on the block. It is hard to let go of that which defines us, painful to recognize that one's time is past and that a new generation is rising.

Lewis, on the other hand, seems to suffer no such pride of ownership. It was he who invited Obama to Selma a month before Clinton decided to go. And it is Obama, not Clinton, who has been awarded Selma's prime real estate -- the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church where the famous march began.

Clinton will be speaking at the black First Baptist Church a few yards away on Martin Luther King Jr. Street. Jackson and Sharpton have reserved pulpits at Tabernacle Baptist Church and the Second Baptist Church, respectively.

In his symbolic gesture, Lewis seems to have passed the torch, suggesting that perhaps we are finally ready to move on. Not to forget, but to let go.