NNPA – Illinois Senator Barack Obama hit the ground running following the official announcement of his candidacy for President on Feb. 10. Obama announced his candidacy while standing in front of the old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois, where Abraham Lincoln delivered his speech on June 16, 1958, which included the famous phrase, "a house divided against itself can not stand."
This past Sunday, he was the keynote speaker at the Selma (Alabama) Voting Rights March Commemoration at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church. Obama expressed a sense of humility at being in such distinguished company. "When you have to speak in front of somebody who Martin Luther King said was the greatest preacher he ever heard, then you've got some problems," Obama light-heartedly said of C.T. Vivian, who was among the attendees. The audience also included civil rights icons, Congressman John Lewis, Rev. Joseph Lowery and others.
In his first speech at a major event, the 45-year-old did not focus on his campaign but on his heritage, attempting to settle an unsettling argument about his roots.
Obama quickly responded to what has been his most plaguing question among African American voters early in his campaign. Being of a mixed heritage, his "Blackness" has been under suspicion by some, who feared Obama may not be able to identify with the adverse effects of slavery and the current issues facing the African American community.
"A lot of people been asking, well, you know, your father was from Africa, your mother, she's a white woman from Kansas. I'm not sure that you have the same experience," Obama said, adding, "My very existence might not have been possible had it not been for some of the folks here today.
"It is because they marched that I stand before you here today. What happened in Selma, Alabama and Birmingham also stirred the conscience of the nation," Obama said adding that the march had a rippling effect across the ocean, giving hope to his grandfather and father in Africa.
Obama spoke about his grandfather toiling as a cook in then British-colonized and deeply segregated Kenya, being known and called a "cook and a house boy (emphasis on "boy")" even up to his 60s.
"They wouldn't call him by his last name," Obama said. "Sound familiar?"
It was the embarrassment of civil rights clashes like Bloody Sunday that motivated the United States to offer scholarships to Africans allowing them to attend colleges in the United States. The idea being that Africans, who were fighting apartheid, would see what a wonderful country America truly was. Obama's grandfather attained one for his son, then a goat herder.
After arriving in the United States, Barack Obama Sr. then met and married Ann Durham, giving birth to Obama Jr.
"So don't tell me I don't have a claim on Selma, Alabama. Don't tell me I'm not coming home to Selma, Alabama," Obama said. "I'm here because somebody marched. I'm here because you all sacrificed for me. I stand on the shoulders of giants. It is because they marched that I got the kind of education I got, a law degree, a seat in the Illinois senate and ultimately in the United States senate."
Civil right organizations in Alabama annually observe the dramatic and violent events that took place at and around March 7, 1965, when 600 marchers, including Martin Luther King, Jr., now-congressman Lewis, Rosa Parks and others attempted to walk from Selma to Montgomery in a movement to win equal voting rights that had been mostly denied to Blacks. They were met by state troopers at the Pettus Bridge just outside Selma, where many were beaten with billy clubs, bull whips and sprayed with tear gas. That day was later dubbed "Bloody Sunday."
It would take two more tries before the marchers successfully made it to Montgomery on March 24. A "Stars for Freedom" concert that night included artists Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Tony Bennett. The next day, King gave his famous "How Long, Not Long" speech on the steps of the state capitol building before a crowd of 25,000. Throughout the preceding three weeks, along with several injuries, at least two died at the hands of state troopers. The string of events served as a key motivator behind President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act five months later.
Obama continued his address in Selma, calling his current era the Joshua generation, in line with Biblical account, standing on the shoulders of their predecessors.
"We are in the presence today of a lot of Moseses," Obama said. "We're in the presence today of giants whose shoulders we stand on, people who battled, not just on behalf of African Americans but on behalf of all of America; that battled for America's soul, that shed blood, that endured taunts and torment and in some cases gave the full measure of their devotion."
Obama followed by telling his fellow "Joshua-ites" what they must do to extend the success of their forefathers.
"Moses told the Joshua generation; don't forget where you came from. I worry sometimes, that the Joshua generation in its success forgets where it came from," Obama said. "There are still battles that need to be fought; some rivers that need to be crossed. Like Moses, the task was passed on to those who might not have been as deserving, might not have been as courageous, find themselves in front of the risks that their parents and grandparents and great grandparents had taken. That doesn't mean that they don't still have a burden to shoulder, that they don't have some responsibilities.
"The previous generation, the Moses generation, pointed the way. They took us 90 percent of the way there. We still got that 10 percent in order to cross over to the other side. So the question, I guess, that I have today is, what's called of us in this Joshua generation? What do we do in order to fulfill that legacy; to fulfill the obligations and the debt that we owe to those who allowed us to be here today?"
Two days earlier, Obama held his first major dialogue with the Black Press, answering a variety of questions via teleconference to representatives of several Black newspapers throughout the nation. Obama, however, did not escape without being scolded by Eleanor Tatum of the New York Amsterdam News for taking three weeks after his campaign announcement to contact the Black Press. To which concern Obama assured the publishers that he will maintain close communication with the Black Press on a regular basis throughout the November 2008 elections.
"We're just getting started," he said.
Fellow presidential candidate, New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, spoke at a nearby church also involved in the commemorative march