What Obama Means for... King's Legacy

A center of black culture and history, the New York neighborhood of Harlem welcomed the news that Barack Obama had been elected the first black president with a loud celebration.Video by Travis Fox
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
Sunday, November 9, 2008

For the past few months, I've been obsessed with a poorly recorded YouTube clip of the Rev. Joseph Lowery, a co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, giving his blessing to the candidacy of Barack Obama. The clip was recorded on March 4, 2007, at a time when much of the established black leadership was backing Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. But Lowery saw in Obama something of his old self -- what he called "good crazy."

"I came over here where crazy things are happening," Lowery told his audience, and then, referring to Obama and the echoes of his own history, added: "There are people in this country who say certain things can't happen, but who can tell? Who can tell? . . . Something crazy may happen in this country."

I'm not a religious man, but I've been enthralled with that sermon since the day I saw it. I posted it on my blog four times. To the chagrin of my partner, I wandered around our house muttering, in a bad imitation of Lowery's Georgia accent, "Crazy things are happening." I woke her up at 5:30 a.m. on Election Day, woke my son, plugged my laptop into the speakers and played the sermon again while I got dressed. When I got home, I posted the clip on my blog again.

At the time Lowery made that speech, I was one of those skeptical African Americans who doubted Obama's national potential. I had always prided myself on being "good crazy," on being a little different. I didn't go to my senior prom; I boycotted my high school graduation. The moment I found writing, I dropped out of college, convinced that I'd discovered my vocation.

On any weekend, you can find me on the sidelines of a Little League football game, urging my young son to throw himself at some kid twice his size. On the evening of Election Day, I took him to tryouts for the local swim team and marveled as he backstroked his way through 14-foot-deep water. Only afterward did he tell me that he'd never swum in water that deep. He didn't make the cut, but I could care less. The boy was clearly "good crazy."

That night, as the returns rolled in, as the very states that pundits once said would be among Obama's most important battles (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida) broke his way, as states that only a year ago we thought no Democrat could win (Indiana, Virginia) turned blue -- or at least, in the case of Indiana, a far-out shade of purple -- on those giant TV maps, I thought some more about Lowery's words and realized that he was talking about a different sort of courage altogether. It's one thing to believe in yourself, to think that you can swim in the deep end, to believe that you can make it with determination and without a college degree -- but it's a much, much greater thing to believe in yourself and also in people whom you've never met.

Here is where Barack Obama and the civil rights leaders of old are joined -- in a shocking, almost certifiable faith in humanity, something that subsequent generations lost. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. may have led African Americans out of segregation, and he may have cured incalculable numbers of white racists, but more than all that, he believed that the lion's share of the population of this country would not support the rights of thugs to pummel people who just wanted to cross a bridge. King believed in white people, and when I was a younger, more callow man, that belief made me suck my teeth. I saw it as weakness and cowardice, a lack of faith in his own. But it was the opposite. King's belief in white people was the ultimate show of strength: He was willing to give his life on a bet that they were no different from the people who lived next door.

Those of us who rolled our eyes when Obama declared his candidacy did not think him weak or cowardly. But we essentially doubted the humanity of the people Obama needed to convince in order to win. During the primary campaign, we looked at the demographics of Iowa, Idaho and Washington and saw only the ugliest chapters of American history. After Obama closed out the primaries with a win in Montana, a shocked buddy of mine joked that there was "nothing in Montana but white militias and Phil Jackson." The favored rallying cry of black people is that we are not a monolith. How fascinating that some of us could only belatedly extend the same courtesy to white Americans.

Let us avoid the mire of false equivalency. Blacks were suspicious because of a lengthy history of having their own humanity not just doubted but stolen by the very people they were now being asked to trust. It is precisely because King's belief in white humanity was rewarded with death that so many blacks either didn't think Obama could win or just didn't want him to run. I was stunned by his victory in Iowa, but I did not become a believer until South Carolina. After Super Tuesday, when Obama rolled up wins in states that most black folks had long ago written off, I not only drank the Kool-Aid, I began brewing it.

Those of us who overestimated racism would be smart to think about why we were so wrong. Those of us who are tempted to claim this victory solely for ourselves need to temper our enthusiasm and meditate on what we've learned. The lesson isn't that racism is dead but that people are complicated, that even the most virulent racist may well have a 401(k) and kids he'd like to send to college. Though fear may haunt him, anyone can be touched by a good crazy.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a contributing editor at the Atlantic and the author of "The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons and an Unlikely Road to Manhood."

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