Chris Smith: Are Voters Ready for Civil Rights Redux?

Senator Barack Obama gave a brave, powerful, important speech yesterday in Philadelphia, but he was forced to deliver it by the greatest crisis of his candidacy: the furor created by the incendiary remarks of his former Chicago pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. With the key Pennsylvania primary looming, Obama hit all the necessary political notes, calling Wright's bigoted, anti-American comments "wrong" and making it clear that he doesn't agree with them. He also turned some evocative phrases, particularly when describing his own mixed racial heritage and the indispensable love of his white grandmother. At its core, the speech was a terrific argument for the tolerance of complexity and imperfection, and for the need for this country to continually strive to rise above simple-minded, self-interested hatred.

As soon as it ended, of course, the network commentators and analysts held up the conventional prism, speculating about how Obama's performance played with black and white voters. Yet Obama's speech was a turning point on a very different level: For the first time in this long campaign, he explicitly cast his candidacy as a major step in the long march for civil rights. Until now, Obama has talked about hope and change in the broadest terms, about how he could make politics work better to fix the country's broken health insurance and educational systems. And again, he tried to explain his belief in the need for pan-racial unity as a predicate to solving concrete political problems.

Obama promised that this speech wouldn't be a one-time flourish, that he'd be returning to its ideas and themes regularly. But if he does, he'll be asking voters to reimmerse themselves in the realities of the sixties civil-rights movement, and the shortcomings of the decades that followed. He's asking the country to not only accept the discussion, but to move past it — by electing him. It's a bold, tricky proposition. It may appeal to the higher-minded ideals in the Democratic electorate in particular, but it's not at all clear that Obama is ready for the turmoil he may stir in the larger audience. Reverend Wright isn't the problem; it's the issues of race, inequality, and power that are ineluctably divisive.

The other problem with revisiting the civil rights movement is timing. As Obama spoke, CNN's crawl was a relentlessly grim reminder about the staggering economy: Building permits plunged 8 percent in February … Oil prices at $107 per barrel … Citigroup announced layoffs…

Obama taught an invaluable lesson in human relations and American history yesterday. Yet his speech made abundantly clear that the real risk to his candidacy isn't racism or his minister's inflammatory words, but whether voters believe healing hearts and minds leads to a country that's not only fair, but prosperous and safe. —Chris Smith