Obama: better than civil rights!

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Feb. 14 2007 7:16 PM

Obama: Better Than Civil Rights!

The Obama Messiah Watch, Part 6.

Is Barack Obama the Good Shepherd? To answer this question, Slate has been gathering gratuitously adoring biographical details from newspaper, television, and magazine profiles of the U.S. senator from Illinois, best-selling author, Harvard Law Review president, Men's Vogue cover model, Grammy winner, possible telepathic communicator with space aliens from distant galaxies, and declared presidential candidate. Today's entry is a slight departure from form, being not a gratuitously adoring biographic detail from an Obama profile, but rather an implausible absolutist assertion by Stuart Taylor Jr. of National Journal in an essay about Obama titled, "The Great Black-White Hope."  Here is what Taylor wrote:

[I]t is beyond debate that an Obama win in 2008 would be by far the best thing that has happened to African-Americans, and to race relations, in more than 50 years.

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This is a remarkable statement because nearly all the achievements of the 20th-century civil rights movement occurred within the last 50 years. The most significant exceptions are President Harry Truman's desegregation of the armed forces in 1948; the Supreme Court's decision outlawing school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in 1954; and the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 and 1956. Taylor's statement allows for the possibility that any of these things constituted a bigger advance for blacks and for race relations than a prospective Obama presidency. But that leaves an awful lot out.

Here is a (necessarily incomplete) list of things that, according to Taylor, cannot possibly constitute a bigger advance for blacks than a prospective Obama presidency (because the latter's superior benefit is "beyond debate"):

1)    President Dwight Eisenhower sending in federal troops to enforce the court-ordered desegregation of Central High in Little Rock, Ark. (1957)
2)    The Freedom Rides  (1961)
3)    Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech (1963)
4)    Martin Luther King's "Letter From Birmingham Jail" (1963)
5)    The Civil Rights Act of 1964
6)    The Voting Rights Act of 1965
7)    The Fair Housing Act of 1968

If an Obama candidacy would do more for African-Americans than any of these landmarks, then surely Obama is the Messiah. If, on the other hand, Taylor is only espousing this view because he's fed up with what he calls "the myth of continuing African-American victimhood," then he's parroting Charles J. Kelly, Jr., a retired white financier who tried, unsuccessfully, to draft Colin Powell to run for president in 1996. Here is what Kelly told my late wife, Marjorie Williams, when she wrote about the Powell-for-president blip in the Oct. 1995 Vanity Fair:

His presence says, 'Kwitcherbitchin. If I can do it, you can do it. Don't run around talking about how the world owes you a living. Just don't whine about it. Get on with your lives.

I have a dream. A dream that one day, angry white men like Taylor and Kelly will have a nobler reason to give one African-American a platform than the desire to get a whole lot of other African-Americans to shut up. Kelly's support insulted Powell then, and Taylor's support insults Obama now.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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