Obama resurrects call for multiracial economic alliance

The Baltimore Sun

I look forward confidently to the day when all who work for a living will be one, with no thought to their separateness as Negroes, Jews, Italians or any other distinctions. - the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Dec. 11, 1961

Tom Watson, memorialized with a statue on the grounds of the Georgia State Capitol, is remembered for a virulent racism that denigrated Catholics, demonized Jews and lauded a Ku Klux Klan that would terrorize former slaves.

But Mr. Watson didn't start his political career as a hatemonger.

Quite the opposite, in fact. As a young congressman, he championed the needs of small farmers - of all races - against the monied elite, assembling one of the earliest coalitions of black and white voters drawn together by common economic interests. His perplexing descent into vicious bigotry began after opponents repeatedly defeated him through ballot box fraud.

That biracial coalition of common folk emerged again when Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal brought together black voters and working-class whites, but it frayed with the civil rights movement and a newly invigorated black activism. Ronald Reagan easily peeled away working-class whites resentful of what they believed to be "radical" activists making unfair demands.

Sen. Barack Obama alluded to that recent history in his widely acclaimed speech in Philadelphia last Tuesday, noting that "anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan coalition." Still, Mr. Obama hopes to forge a multiracial alliance of voters held together by a common economic plight.

"I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together - unless we ... [understand] that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction - toward a better future for our children and our grandchildren," he said.

That high-minded appeal has drawn its share of skeptics, and for good reason. One of the more puzzling, yet persistent, features of the American political landscape has been the success of politicians who seize on racial tensions and long-simmering resentments to win over working-class white voters - even while supporting policies that betray the economic interests of that same group.

Most Americans disagreed with a GOP platform that cuts taxes for the wealthy, opposes universal health care and pushes the privatization of Social Security. Yet - with Karl Rove amplifying race and religion as wedge issues - they elected George W. Bush twice. (Mr. Bush, of course, also preyed on a fear of terrorism.)

Mr. Obama isn't naive about the challenge he faces. And with the images of his incendiary former pastor playing over and over on cable TV and YouTube, his hurdles are higher than before.

But he made a compelling case for ignoring the demagoguery and innuendo and divisiveness.

"We have a choice. ... We can accept a politics that breeds division and conflict and cynicism. ... But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we'll be talking about some other distraction. ... And nothing will change. ...

"Or this time ... we can come together and say ... we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. ... This time, we want to talk about how the lines in the emergency room are filled with whites and blacks and Hispanics who do not have health care," he said.

It was the most direct appeal for a multiracial coalition built around a shared economic plight since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called for a Poor People's Crusade. Forty years ago this month, giving his last Sunday morning sermon, Dr. King preached at the National Cathedral in Washington, calling for "the richest nation in the world" to "bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots." He acknowledged that the "cards are stacked against us" in a crusade for economic equality, but he insisted on helping to make America "the truly great America it is called to be."

It's about time someone took up that call again.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears weekly in The Sun. Her e-mail is cynthia@ajc.com.

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