April 21, 2007

Coming Home Al-Obama

This essay, drawing on some of what has appeared in this space before, was on the oped page of the Hindustan Times on Thursday April 19. Your comments welcome.


Coming Home Al-Obama

When I reach at 815 on the chilly morning of Sunday March 4, there's almost nobody about. I ease over the famous Edmund Pettus bridge and down into main street -- actually Broad Street -- Selma, Alabama.

Selma, the town where several hundred marchers began a march to Montgomery in late March 1965, a march that would end up breaking the back of segregation. There's some history there. In February of that year, as a campaign to register black voters picked up steam, the police shot and killed a young black man in a demonstration. Outraged citizens decided to march in protest to Montgomery, on March 7 1965. The Alabama police waited for them on the other side of the Pettus bridge. "This is an unlawful gathering," the officer told the protestors, "and you have three minutes to disperse." A minute-and-a-half later, the police attacked the marchers with clubs and tear gas.

This was the infamous "Bloody Sunday".

But the tear gas didn't deter the marchers. Led by Martin Luther King, they did a symbolic march two days later, and the full trek to Montgomery towards the end of that month. But by the time they reached Montgomery, they were no longer several hundred. They were 25,000.

Months after they reached Montgomery, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act.

One legacy of that struggle is that today, a black man can run for President of the United States: he can actually conceive of such audacity, carry it off too. There is such a man today, and his name is Barack Obama.

Every year they commemorate Bloody Sunday in Selma. People walk from the Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church -- where the 1965 march began -- through downtown Selma and over the Pettus bridge. That is, as far as Selma can be considered to have a downtown. This year, the commemoration is on March 4. Both Obama and Hilary Clinton are making speeches in Selma, Obama in the Brown AME church itself. After that, they will join the march across the bridge. Bill Clinton will be there too.

I am in Selma nearly three hours in advance of Obama's scheduled speech at the Brown AME church. Since there are so few people around, I'm thinking of sitting in the church to spend the hours waiting for him. I'm so naively confident of this that I figure I'll wander around town for a while before heading over to the church.

On the way I meet Benson Webb at a stall outside his home. He pleads genially with me to buy a poster of the bridge, marked with several unintelligible signatures. I smile and say no, and we chat for a while. "Don' know nothin' 'bout Obama, man," he says, "but I'm listenin'! I'm listenin'!" When he hears I'm from India, his eyes go round and big. "India? You've come a LONG way, man!" But then he hears I'm a writer. He lopes off and returns with an unmarked bridge poster. "If you a writer, I'm 'on' get YOU to sign right here, bro! You gon' be famous man, and when I see that novel you gon' write? I'm 'on' show people that sign a yours!"

He's a good man, Benson. Love the rhythms and inflections of his speech. Wish I spoke like that.

The church is just around the corner from Benson's, and I reach there at 845. There must be several hundred people there already, in a long line that stretches down the road. So much for sitting in the church. So much for underestimating the hold this man Obama already has on people.

Me, I'm on my feet for the next eight hours: standing in the line outside, talking to people around me, eventually listening via loudspeaker to the service and to Obama, eating a hamburger, getting up close to Obama thrice and to Bill Clinton once entirely by chance, shaking Bill's hand once and another time, another hand that might have been Barack's hand though I'm not sure. Then I walk with the crowd that must easily be 10,000 strong, through downtown and over the bridge.

He's a fine speaker, Barack Obama. He talks eloquently of the unfinished work of the civil rights movement; but of how he feels like he stands on the shoulders of many courageous men and women from that time. They paved the way for him to be where he is today, for him to run for President. "So don't tell me I don't have a claim on Selma, Alabama," he said. "Don't tell me I'm not coming home to Selma, Alabama." He even invoked Gandhi, "great hero of Dr King", speaking Gandhi's famous message to be the change you want to see.

It's an uplifting, energizing experience listening to Barack Obama -- and I hope Benson is somewhere in the crowd listening too. It will be interesting to see how he fares when he has to address more substantive issues and more hostile audiences. It's just as uplifting being in the middle of all these people. Yet through the day, it's not all the words I hear that I think about. Instead, I'm struck over and over by the ironies.

I mean, if 42 years ago the Alabama police beat back those brave marchers, today they are respectfully directing people and the crowds in general, keeping the peace.

If at that time the Alabama establishment and many of its white residents tried every trick in the book to to deny blacks the right to vote, today there are white men with T-shirts saying "Al-Obama!", a woman holding up "Bama for Obama!"

If in the early '60s young idealistic students -- many of them white -- came from all over the country to help voter registration efforts here, faced serious hostility and even death, today young idealistic students -- many of them white -- have come here from all over the country to work with Obama's Presidential campaign. To work with this black man's Presidential campaign.

One of them hands me a card. "Join us!" he says.

Two short words, and he's on to the next person in the line. But I'm left thinking of how much, over how long, went into the simple fact of this man saying these two words in this place, at this time. Two short words, but in them is the spirit of Medgar Evers and John Lewis, Michael Schwerner and Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and Emmett Till.

And with those two words, I know that back in March 1965, they crossed much more than a bridge in Selma.


Anonymous said...

Jeez, what a production that whole visit by the Democrat candidates was. Obama sure is a good speaker, but he seems to me to be a black Bill Clinton in many ways. His politics (and that of the Democratic party in general) are very much of the Clinton and Blair inspired neo-liberal sort..

That said I'm sure he'd be better than the current lot, but that's really not saying much...

Santhosh said...

I sincerely love it.

Harish Suryanarayana said...

Very well written article. Enjoyed reading it.