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Now comes Barack Obama, a black man and a plausible national leader, who appeals across racial lines. But to his black and white supporters, Mr. Obama increasingly represents different things.
The initial base of support for Mr. Obama's presidential campaign came from young whites – who saw in him the ability to take the nation to a place where, to quote from King's "I Have A Dream" speech, "we shall be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood."
Black voters rallied to Mr. Obama after whites in Iowa and New Hampshire showed they were willing to vote for him. Mr. Obama spoke directly to charges that he was not "black enough," that he was not a child of the civil rights movement because he grew up in Hawaii and has an Ivy League education, that he is too young, it is not his time, and even that his campaign is too risky because white racists might kill him.
Mr. Obama, his wife Michelle and supporters such as Oprah Winfrey make the case to black voters that he is the fruit of the struggles of King and others. They argue that this generation of black Americans does not have to wait for their turn to reach for the ultimate political power of the presidency.
Mr. Obama has carried a message of pride and self-sufficiency to black voters nationwide, who have rewarded him with support reaching 80% and higher. His candidacy has become, as the headline on Ebony magazine put it, a matter of having a black man as president "In Our Lifetime."
Among his white supporters, race is coincidental, not central, to his political identity. Mr. Obama is to them the candidate who personifies the promise of equal opportunity for all. But as black support has become central to his victories, this idealistic view has been increasingly at war with the portrayal, crafted by the senator to win black support, of him as the black candidate. The terrible tension between these racially distinct views now surrounds and threatens his campaign.
So far, Mr. Obama has been content to let black people have their vision of him while white people hold to a separate, segregated reality. He is a politician and, unlike King, his goal is winning votes, not changing hearts. Still, it is a key break from the King tradition to sell different messages to different audiences based on race, and to fail to challenge racial divisions in the nation.
Mr. Obama's major speech on race last month was forced from him only after a political crisis erupted: It became widely known that he'd sat for 20 years in the pews of a church where Rev. Jeremiah Wright lashed out at white people. The minister cursed America as worthy of damnation, made lewd suggestions about the nature of President Clinton's relationship with black voters, and embraced the paranoid idea that the white government was spreading AIDS among black people.
Here is where the racial tension at the heart of Mr. Obama's campaign flared into view. He either shared these beliefs or, lacking good judgment, decided it politically expedient for an ambitious young black politician trying to prove his solidarity with all things black, to be associated with these rants. His judgment and leadership on the critical issue of race is in question.
While speaking to black people, King never condescended to offer Rev. Wright-style diatribes or conspiracy theories. He did not paint black people as victims. To the contrary, he spoke about black people as American patriots who believed in the democratic ideals of the country, in nonviolence and the Judeo-Christian ethic, even as they overcame slavery, discrimination and disadvantage. King challenged white America to do the same, to live up to their ideals and create racial unity. He challenged white Christians, asking them how they could treat their fellow black Christians as anything but brothers in Christ.
When King spoke about the racist past, he gloried in black people beating the odds to win equal rights by arming "ourselves with dignity and self-respect." He expressed regret that some black leaders reveled in grievance, malice and self-indulgent anger in place of a focus on strong families, education and love of God. Even in the days before Congress passed civil rights laws, King spoke to black Americans about the pride that comes from "assuming primary responsibility" for achieving "first class citizenship."
Last March in Selma, Ala., Mr. Obama appeared on the verge of breaking away from the merchants of black grievance and victimization. At a commemoration of the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march for voting rights, he spoke in a King-like voice. He focused on traditions of black sacrifice, idealism and the need for taking personal responsibility for building strong black families and communities. He said black people should never "deny that its gotten better," even as the movement goes on to improve schools and provide good health care for all Americans. He then challenged black America, by saying that "government alone can't solve all those problems . . . it is not enough just to ask what the government can do for us -- it's important for us to ask what we can do for ourselves."
Mr. Obama added that better education for black students begins with black parents visiting their children's teachers, as well as turning off the television so children can focus on homework. He expressed alarm over the lack of appreciation for education in the black community: "I don't know who taught them that reading and writing and conjugating your verbs were something white. We've got to get over that mentality." King, he added later, believed that black America has to first "transform ourselves in order to transform the world."
But as his campaign made headway with black voters, Mr. Obama no longer spoke about the responsibility and the power of black America to appeal to the conscience and highest ideals of the nation. He no longer asks black people to let go of the grievance culture to transcend racial arguments and transform the world.
He has stopped all mention of government's inability to create strong black families, while the black community accepts a 70% out-of-wedlock birth rate. Half of black and Hispanic children drop out of high school, but he no longer touches on the need for parents to convey a love of learning to their children. There is no mention in his speeches of the history of expensive but ineffective government programs that encourage dependency. He fails to point out the failures of too many poverty programs, given the 25% poverty rate in black America.
And he chooses not to confront the poisonous "thug life" culture in rap music that glorifies drug use and crime.
Instead the senator, in a full political pander, is busy excusing Rev. Wright's racial attacks as the right of the Rev.-Wright generation of black Americans to define the nation's future by their past. He stretches compassion to the breaking point by equating his white grandmother's private concerns about black men on the street with Rev. Wright's public stirring of racial division.
And he wasted time in his Philadelphia speech on race by saying he can't "disown" Rev. Wright any more than he could "disown the black community." No one has asked him to disown Rev. Wright. Only in a later appearance on "The View" television show did he say that he would have left the church if Rev. Wright had not retired and not acknowledged his offensive language.
As the nation tries to recall the meaning of Martin Luther King today, Mr. Obama's campaign has become a mirror reflecting where we are on race 40 years after the assassination. Mr. Obama's success has moved forward the story of American race relations; King would have been thrilled with his political triumphs.
But when Barack Obama, arguably the best of this generation of black or white leaders, finds it easy to sit in Rev. Wright's pews and nod along with wacky and bitterly divisive racial rhetoric, it does call his judgment into question. And it reveals a continuing crisis in racial leadership.
What would Jesus do? There is no question he would have left that church.
Mr. Williams is a political analyst for National Public Radio and Fox News.