Barack Obama’s appeal to the people to join in building a “more perfect union” touched a deep chord among millions of voters weary of division and hate peddled by the corporate ultra-right and their Republican agents in Washington.
His 37-minute speech at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, March 18, has been hailed as “a speech for the ages.” It has been likened to John F. Kennedy’s speech in defense of separation of church and state when his candidacy was threatened by anti-Catholic bigotry.
With the media whipping up hysteria over the sermons of Obama’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the speech was seen as a challenge to save his campaign. It was heard live by millions on cable and network TV. Afterwards, commentators said the speech had turned danger into triumph, reaching once again across racial and partisan divides to build support for his presidential candidacy.
NAACP Chairman Julian Bond said he was moved to tears by the speech.
Theodore Sorenson, President Kennedy’s speechwriter, said no campaign speech in history “had as much courage and principle and long-term importance on the most fundamental problem that has faced this country since its founding … the problem of race.”
Sitting in Obama’s audience was Bill Hamilton, president of Teamsters Joint Council 53. Obama “didn’t shirk any of the issues — he attacked them head on. This guy is for real,” Hamilton said. The Teamsters have endorsed Obama.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, the nation’s only Latino governor, who recently ended his own presidential bid, reacted to the speech by announcing his endorsement of Obama to a cheering crowd at Memorial Coliseum in Portland, Ore., March 21. Obama, he said, “spoke to us as adults. He asked us to ponder the weight of our racially divided past, to rise above it and seize the opportunity to carry forward the work of many patriots of all races who struggled and died to bring us together.”
Richardson said, “As a Hispanic, I was particularly touched by his words. I have been troubled by the demonization of immigrants — specifically Hispanics.”
He added, “Hate crimes against Hispanics are rising as a direct result and now in tough economic times, people are looking for scapegoats. We all know the real culprit — the disastrous economic policies of the Bush administration.” The crowd erupted in cheers.
Richardson also rebutted insinuations by John McCain and the Clintons that they, but not Obama, are equipped to lead in foreign and military affairs. He hailed Obama for understanding “the security challenges of the 21st century,” adding, “you will be an outstanding commander in chief.”
Richardson, who served in the Clinton administration, said it is “time for Democrats to stop fighting amongst themselves and to prepare for the tough fight we will face against John McCain in the fall.”
In the Portland crowd were hundreds of members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees’ Oregon council, which has endorsed Obama despite national AFSCME’s endorsement of Clinton. Doreen Wood, an AFSCME Local 328 member, said Obama’s Philadelphia speech “was as honest and convincing an act of patriotism that I have seen in a long time. This one man could change our nation for the better.” She characterized the speech as “the bravest act by a politician I have ever seen and the most inspiring moment in a presidential candidacy that I have ever heard.”
Obama told his Philadelphia audience that the media may broadcast Wright’s sermons “on every channel, every day” until the November election. The other choice, he said, is to focus on the real issues: crumbling schools, neglect of children of all races, a broken health care system, a war that never should have been fought. He called for common ground against the “real culprits” that impoverish all working people, “a corporate culture rife with insider dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many.”
Obama spoke of African Americans still fighting discrimination 145 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Yet he also spoke of white workers who “don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race … They’ve worked hard all their lives only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pensions dumped … They are anxious about their futures and see their dreams slipping away.”
Obama decried a longstanding “racial stalemate,” adding, “But I have asserted a firm conviction, a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people, that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.”