Barack Obama's Sunday speech at Ebenezer Baptist church impressed with its eloquence but also its basic decency. (A voyeuristic glance into the process of Obama's speechifying can be read here). Much of the discussion about the speech has focused on its gentle excoriation of prejudice in African American communities:
And yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that none of
our hands are entirely clean. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll
acknowledge that our own community has not always been true to King’s
vision of a beloved community.
We have scorned our gay brothers and sisters instead of embracing
them. The scourge of anti-Semitism has, at times, revealed itself in
our community. For too long, some of us have seen immigrants as
competitors for jobs instead of companions in the fight for opportunity.
This shot of audacity before a moderate, religious, elder black audience is more than just a reinforcement of Obama's "telling people what they need to hear" refrain, it is a real defense of what's been a sore point among some black American leaders: his biographical distance from the civil rights-era. After all, Obama was only seven and living in Indonesia when Dr. King was shot. The blood-on-the-shirt street cred just isn't available to him.
But his youth is. I watched Obama give a variation on his famous "Joshua Generation" speech at Howard University this September, wherein he laid out his platform for criminal justice reform. The key point, which dovetails with the message in yesterday's speech:
Most of you know that Moses was called by God to lead his people to the
promised land. And in the face of a pharaoh and his armies, across an
unforgiving desert and along the walls of an angry sea, he succeeded in
leading his people out of bondage in Egypt. He led them through great
dangers and they got far enough so that Moses could point the way
toward freedom on the far banks of the river Jordan. Yet it was not
God's plan to have Moses cross the river. Instead he would call on
Joshua to finish the work that Moses began. He would ask Joshua to take
his people that final distance.
To the young people here: you are members of the Joshua Generation. It
is up to you to finish the work that they began. It is up to you to
cross the river.
Rather than shunning his circumstantial distance from Martin Luther King, Obama routinely embraces this generational disconnect, incorporating the best of 20th century black
activism (and religiosity) without unnecessary rehash. But yesterday's speech featured a progressive challenge I haven't seen before. The mores of the "Joshua Generation"--black, white,
young, American--are more tolerant of racial, religious or gender-based
difference. By urging not just "young people" but older blacks to join the movement (the one that, like LBJ, gets things done), Obama completely reversed the standard game of respect-your-elders/follow-the-leader that dominates black American culture. The fact that this went over so well--on MLK eve, no less--is a testament to growing interest in turning the page on black leadership.