Obama could have sent America a tougher message about racism and guns

He came close, maybe he still will

WASHINGTON, D.C. - President Obama gave a brief, plainspoken address from the White House the morning after the shootings at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church. He quoted at length from the speech Martin Luther King gave after the bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., on Sept. 15, 1963, that left four little girls dead.

They say to each of us,’ Dr. King said, ‘black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely with [about] who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American Dream.

“‘And if one will hold on, he will discover that God walks with him, and that God is able to lift you from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope, and transform dark and desolate valleys into sunlit paths of inner peace.’”

Obama tried to evoke that spirit of hope and courage for the church called Mother Emanuel, saying, “And with our prayers and our love, and the buoyancy of hope, it will rise again now as a place of peace.”

The words Obama quoted were not King’s most memorable response to the murders at the 16th Baptist Church.

King also sent Gov. George Wallace a telegram: “The blood of our little children is on your hands."

Listening to Obama’s remarks, he seemed like he was on the edge of a cliff, tempted to abandon caution and invoke King’s much tougher words. He didn’t. He could have. And not just about race, but also guns.

But Obama’s remarks were more human and more powerful than the written statement President John F. Kennedy issued after the bombing.

“I KNOW I speak on behalf of all Americans in expressing a deep sense of outrage and grief over the killing of the children yesterday in Birmingham, Alabama. It is regrettable that public disparagement of law and order has encouraged violence which has fallen on the innocent. If these cruel and tragic events can only awaken that city and State--if they can only awaken this entire Nation--to a realization of the folly of racial injustice and hatred and violence, then it is not too late for all concerned to unite in steps toward peaceful progress before more lives are lost.

“The Negro leaders of Birmingham who are counseling restraint instead of violence are bravely serving their ideals in their most difficult task--for the principles of peaceful self-control are least appealing when most needed.

“…This Nation is committed to a course of domestic justice and tranquility--and I call upon every citizen, white and Negro, North and South, to put passions and prejudices aside and to join in this effort.”

President Obama, with a pained look on his face, did say this about gun violence America: “At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency. And it is in our power to do something about it.”

The tragedy of Charleston, Obama said, also stems from “the dark part of our history,” the racial hatred that has threatened for centuries “our democracy and our ideals.”

This could have been a moment to go further, to send a blunt telegram to the country.

This is exactly what an unknown white lawyer in Birmingham named Charles Morgan Jr. did the day after the bombing, adding a little remembered footnote to the story. Morgan stood up at luncheon of the Birmingham Young Men's Business Club and, in the truest sense, spoke truth to power.

"Four little girls were killed in Birmingham yesterday. A mad, remorseful worried community asks, "Who did it? Who threw that bomb? Was it a Negro or a white?" The answer should be, "We all did it." Every last one of us is condemned for that crime and the bombing before it and a decade ago. We all did it…."

In the hours after the bombing, other blacks in Birmingham were murdered or assaulted by whites – police and vigilantes. Morgan continued:

"A short time later, white policemen kill a Negro and wound another. A few hours later, two young men on a motorbike shoot and kill a Negro child. Fires break out, and, in Montgomery, white youths assault Negroes. And all across Alabama, an angry, guilty people cry out their mocking shouts of indignity and say they wonder, 'Why?' 'Who?' Everyone then 'deplores' the 'dastardly' act. But you know the 'who' of 'Who did it' is really rather simple….

"The 'who' is every little individual who talks about the 'niggers' and spreads the seeds of his hate to his neighbor and his son. The jokester, the crude oaf whose racial jokes rock the party with laughter. The 'who' is every governor who ever shouted for lawlessness and became a law violator. It is every senator and every representative who in the halls of Congress stands and with mock humility tells the world that things back home aren't really like they are. It is courts that move ever so slowly, and newspapers that timorously defend the law…

"Those four little Negro girls were human beings. They had lived their fourteen years in a leaderless city: a city where no one accepts responsibility, where everybody wants to blame somebody else."

Morgan was run out of town not long after.

As Obama barely hinted, Americans today bear collective, shared guilt for two dark parts of history – the enduring tolerance of racism and of gun worship.  One is a matter of hearts and souls, nearly immune to intentional solutions; the other is purely a matter of laws, politics and policies – and it’s repairable by the same.

Charleston may have been racial terrorism or the hallucinating act of a young monster running free in a world where guns are everywhere. For both, the “who” is “we.”

Today’s elected leaders do not like to scold or blame the collective “we.” It’s bad political marketing. Bad news and entrenched scourges are the fault of the other team or simply fate.

Perhaps even our most gutsy leaders feel they lack the moral authority and public trust to speak truth to the powerless, the voters. 

I thought Barack Obama might seize that authority this week. After all, he is leaving town soon. There is still time.

[Also by Dick Meyer: We are practicing Groundhog Politics]

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