In his inaugural speech, President Obama crystalized the sense of oneness, “My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it — so long as we seize it together.”
The Capitol behind him mirrored the theme in permanent words of stone, “E Pluribus Unum,” out of many, one.
“We the people,” he repeated three times, giving rhythm to a portion of the speech and emphasis to a sense of his listeners being parts of a larger corporate whole.
We the people — that is, except for the majority of citizens who live in the crescent of states from South Carolina to Texas, the white people of the South. They are beyond his corporate embrace, beyond even his curiosity, it seems.
His book, Audacity of Hope, mentions the South only as a moral battleground; he has not traveled widely in the region politically, socially or as a tourist. His life has exhibited no curiosity or understanding of a region almost as large as Western Europe.
Of all the presidents I have seen, met or considered friends, I feel the greatest distance from this president. I supported him publicly and privately. I agree with most of his agenda, but he is a stranger to me and people like me.
I might as well have been watching the inauguration of the leader of a foreign country for all he seems to care about the majority in my part of the world.
Fifty years ago across the mall in Washington, when a 1-year-old Barack Obama had barely learned to crawl, the man whose birth was also celebrated Monday, Dr. Martin Luther King, gave an uplifting speech.
I was there on the Lincoln Memorial as a reporter only a few feet away from Dr. King when with biblical cadences he gave his great speech, “I have a dream …”
His speech was the last — and best — of many speeches that day, but I was more impressed by the civil rights anthem I heard for the first time that afternoon in 1963, 200,000 voices singing, “We are not alone, we are not afraid, we will overcome some day.”
A people on the march, with a song in their heart, in pursuit of a righteous cause is a mighty force to witness for a young reporter, for anyone. That was the last big event I covered before returning home to the front lines in Alabama.
Mr. President, with all respect, I feel the need to tell you that in the years when you were growing up how it was with my people in my part of the world.
Perhaps you can understand, at least intellectually, that a “way of life” that had existed for centuries was being dismantled, and for people on the front lines of social change it was a disorienting experience, not a time for calm reflection.
Some reacted violently, and my hometown had its share: a Freedom Rider bus burned, racist rallies on the courthouse steps and a nightrider murder. Fortunately, Anniston had a civic ideal that allowed it to rally the forces of decency time and again.
My town created a pioneering biracial committee to quietly erase signs of racial division that won praise from President Kennedy, and in one night it raised a $20,000 reward that resulted in the conviction of a white man in the nightrider murder of a black man.
Even in Birmingham, the epicenter of racial conflict with its police dogs and fire hoses, there was a liberal underground organizing to rid the city of a government that gave silent ascent to the sadists of the KKK.
You have not lived in a Manichean world, Mr. President, and so you don’t know instinctively the subtle shadings of dark and light that produce, for instance, the poignant collision of two moral positives.
The urgent national morality of Dr. King’s movement threatened, or so they thought, the quiet progress that religious leaders such as Episcopal Bishop C.C.J. Carpenter were making on the civil rights front.
That and the fear of Klan violence compelled them to write the letter to Dr. King counseling patience, which Dr. King answered in his eloquent “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” defining just and unjust laws.
Moral urgency overwhelmed moral patience.
You mentioned Selma in your speech, Mr. President. “Bloody Sunday” surely must have been shocking to you as a schoolboy in race-less Hawaii, but you neglected to say that a Southerner, Lyndon Johnson, won passage of the Voting Rights Act that year.
Before you had reached your teenage years, as a consequence of events in Selma and elsewhere, the South’s old civilization had sunk to the bottom of history and was replaced by a new and better one.
If you cared to travel some in our region and meet some of us who comprise the majority, you might find a friendly reception for you and maybe even for the Democratic Party.
But strangers have to meet before there is any chance of developing friendships. Only then can we truly be one people.
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.