White House Race: The week the colour issue finally took centre stage

Obama's stirring riposte to preacher controversy had even his critics waxing lyrical. Leonard Doyle reports from Washington
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The Independent US

Tears of raw emotion rolled down Charles Carter's cheeks as he sat in his "shotgun shack" in Greenwood, Mississippi, on Tuesday morning, watching Barack Obama give his speech on race in Philadelphia. Only the whimpering of his Alsatian guard dog was allowed to interrupt the 37-minute broadcast.

The high point of the speech for Mr Carter was not the loop that would be played endlessly on the news, where Senator Obama condemned the racially inflammatory rhetoric of his Chicago pastor, Jeremiah Wright. Nor was it the moment when he described how he cringed as a young man when his white grandmother made a racially inappropriate remark.

For Mr Carter, who restored and manages six old sharecroppers' shacks for tourists to stay in, the high point came when Mr Obama quoted from the Mississippi writer William Faulkner: "The past isn't dead and buried. In fact, it isn't even past."

"So true, so true," he said. "Nobody wants to talk about what went on around here, nobody." What he is referring to is an appalling lynching that took place here in 1955, after a precocious 14-year-old black boy named Emmett "Bobo" Till – down from Chicago on school holidays – had the audacity to say "Bye, baby," to Carolyn Bryant, the married white owner of a shop. He was taken from his uncle's house, brutally tortured – his tongue was cut out – and his body thrown in the river.

In those days such deaths went unpunished, but Emmett's mother insisted on an open-casket funeral back in Chicago, so that everyone could see what had been done to her son. It was a seminal event in the emergence of the civil rights movement, but to this day there is no memorial of it in Greenwood.

A 65-year-old black man, Mr Carter has spent much of his life in the segregated South, and his experiences of racism in America could fill a book. He recalls drinking from "black-only" water fountains. He remembers, as though it were yesterday, the early Sixties, when he was in the air force. The bus taking him off the federally integrated base would stop just outside the gates. "That's when the driver would get up and shout, 'All you niggers move to the back of the bus,'" he told me, the hurt still blazing in his eyes.

For people like Charles Carter, who has registered to vote for the first time in two decades, Mr Obama's candidacy has restored faith in America. But at the beginning of last week, some of the initial fervour was beginning to fade among millions of others whose votes the candidate will need. The constant sniping of Hillary and Bill Clinton at his lack of experience had some effect, as did the fear that his soaring rhetoric might lack substance.

And always in the background was the question: when would race rear its head in the campaign? The Wright issue had bubbled for almost a year, but it was finally forced on to the agenda by a reporter from the right-wing Fox News channel, who simply bought some of the preacher's incendiary sermons from his church's online shop. Again and again viewers could see Wright urging his congregation, which had numbered Barack Obama as a member for 20 years, to sing "God Damn America".

Throughout this election Senator Obama has presented himself as a fusion candidate, the Tiger Woods of politics rather than an angry black man in the mould of Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson. If he had simply issued a routine repudiation of his preacher, it was possible that his candidacy could have evaporated almost overnight. He would have been asked how he could have listened to such sentiments year after year without saying anything. Surely it meant that he shared the preacher's views?

Instead he made a speech that drew comparisons with Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D Roosevelt, as well as John F Kennedy's 1960 speech on religion. In it he said of Mr Wright: "I could no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I could no more disown him than I can disown my white grandmother ... who once confessed her fear of black men who pass her by on the street."

Speaking before eight large US flags, he managed not only to reject the grim vision of his pastor, but offered Americans a more comforting vision of themselves. Race in America is still stained with the original sin of slavery, he suggested, but over the past 50 years the country has moved on, with each generation experiencing race differently.

While older blacks – like Charles Carter back in Mississippi or the Rev Wright– are scarred by their experiences of segregation laws, Mr Obama talked of those who carried a "legacy of defeat" from generation to generation. The result, he said, was an anger "exploited by politicians" that stops blacks "from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition".

He went on: "A similar anger exists within segments of the white community." He referred to the experiences of working and lower middle-class white people who arrived in America with nothing.

So when they were told to bus their children to a school across town, when they heard of someone receiving privileges they never received, and when they were told their fears about crime in urban neighbourhoods were somehow prejudiced, they felt anger towards black Americans. No prominent American politician in living memory has addressed the hurt and anger caused by the country's racial divide in such a thoughtful way.

A thousand or so miles to the north of Greendale, in an upscale suburb of Richmond, Virginia, Laura DeBusk, 37, a registered Republican voter, was also watching the speech with interest. She is a member of a strange new political tribe: those who, for want of a better name, call themselves Obamacans or Republicans for Obama. Her positive reaction reveals that despite the Wright controversy he still appeals to wavering Republicans and independents. Ms DeBusk's reaction to the speech was all that Obama could have hoped for. "I think a lot of this stuff that's been brought up about him is not what we need to be focusing on," she said. "I still view him as the only candidate that can move this country forward, whether on race relations, or with the [Iraq] war. I think he's the only candidate that is going to be able to get Republicans and Democrats to work together to move forward."

Wright's remarks that Americans are racist and that the government is murderous were "awful and hateful, but I tend to agree with Obama that there is more to that man", she said. The first opinion polls after his speech indicate that most Americans felt the same way, with 63 per cent saying they agreed with Mr Obama's views on race.

Even the right-wing commentariat cheered. Ronald Reagan's speechwriter, Peggy Noonan, said: "Obama's speech was strong, thoughtful and important. Rather beautifully, it was a speech to think to, not clap to." She praised him for not ditching his friend of 20 years. He was, she said, "a man who taught him [Obama] Christian faith, helped the poor, served as a Marine, and leads a community helping the homeless, needy and sick."

There was more to come as commentators, black and white, described on television their experiences of a racially divided America. Chris Matthews, the in-your-face host of Hardball, confessed that during his entire education he never had a single black person in his class. Now he is one of Mr Obama's loudest on-air supporters.

Not even a slightly less well-turned comment by Obama, who described his grandmother as a "typical white person", could undermine the dramatic resurrection of his campaign, even though one right-winger complained: "What he did was throw his grandmother under the bus."

All this was bad news for Mrs Clinton. As the political analysts Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen of Politico.com put it yesterday: "She has only one scenario for victory. An African-American opponent and his backers would be told that, even though he won the contest with voters, the prize is going to someone else. People who think that scenario is even remotely likely are living on another planet."

Even in the coming contests in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, where she leads in the polls, Mr Obama regained lost ground with his speech. At the weekend he delivered another coup, when he was endorsed by the US's most prominent Hispanic politician, Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico. That added another Democratic super-delegate to his widening lead in the delegate count.

Sooner or later Mrs Clinton will have to accept the inevitable, but Mr Obama's battle will have only just begun. He may have given the most eloquent political speech America has heard in at least a generation, but he still has to convince millions of Americans that a black man can be President.

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