Sunday, August 30, 2009

Kennedy's cause now Obama's crusade

By DeWayne Wickham

Shortly after I heard Ted Kennedy had lost his fight with brain cancer, I called Mary Frances Berry, a human rights activist and former head of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, to get her sense of this great loss.

Berry and the Massachusetts senator waged a lot of battles together over the years. They fought for gender equity for women, voting rights for minorities, and a quality education for disadvantaged schoolchildren. So when I asked Berry for her most compelling memory of the liberal Democrat who spent nearly half a century in the Senate, I was surprised she didn't mention any of these things.

Instead, she recalled the "gun versus butter" fight Kennedy waged -- and lost -- with his own party in 1978. In December that year, he had a largely forgotten showdown with Jimmy Carter, the political moderate who won the presidency in 1976 with Kennedy's help. Their clash wasn't so much a battle of political ideology as a fight over fiscal priorities.

These differences played out at the Democratic Party's midterm conference in Memphis, Tenn. A raucous gathering of party insiders assembled to assess the course that Democrats, who controlled both houses of Congress, had taken in the first two years of Carter's presidency and, if necessary, plot a mid-course correction.

That year, with inflation soaring, Carter sent Congress a budget that proposed a hefty increase in defense spending and cuts in domestic programs. Kennedy and Berry, who ran federal education programs at the time, objected.

"Sometimes a party must sail against the wind," Kennedy told Democrats at the 1978 conference. "We cannot heed the call of those who say it is time to furl the sail. We know that some things in America today are wrong. It is wrong that prices are rising as rapidly as they are. But it is also wrong that millions of our fellow citizens are out of work. It is wrong that cities are struggling against decay. It is wrong that women and minorities are denied their equal rights. And it is wrong that millions who are sick cannot afford the care they need."

The centerpiece of Kennedy's push for more domestic spending was his insistence that Carter fulfill the Democratic Party's pledge to create a national health insurance plan. Citing budget constraints, Carter wanted to take a go-slow approach. Kennedy felt a greater sense of urgency.

"One of the most shameful things about modern America is that in our unbelievably rich land, the quality of health care available to many of our people is unbelievably poor and the cost is unbelievably high," Kennedy said. "That is why national health insurance is the great unfinished business on the agenda of the Democratic Party."

Kennedy won over his audience that day -- his speech was repeatedly interrupted with standing ovations -- but he lost his fight with Carter. Still, he never gave up.

In January 2008, nearly three decades later, Kennedy called President Barack Obama to say he would endorse the Illinois senator's campaign for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. His support came with one condition: He wanted Obama to promise to push for universal health care if he made it into the White House. Obama agreed.

"This is the cause of my life," Kennedy said later of his desire to see all Americans insured.

What's left of his crusade now languishes in Congress, caught up in another debate over spending priorities. Kennedy's cause now depends on Obama's ability to make good on his promise.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Racists target Obama

By DeWayne Wickham

White racism — which was widely rumored to have been driven into remission by the election of Barack Obama is resurging precisely because of his victory.

Evidence of this reaction to the nation's first black president can be found in the uptick of hateful public speech and in the growing number of threats by activists who are armed and motivated to do harm. Much of this post-election ugly talk and threatened violence has been directed at the president — and even his family.

"Death to Obama," read the sign brandished last week outside a health care reform town hall meeting in Hagerstown, Md. The so far unnamed 51-year-old white man carrying it was taken into custody by the Secret Service. The crudely drawn sign also threatened the life of the president's wife and children. Obama wasn't in Hagerstown, but a day earlier he appeared in Portsmouth, N.H., for a town hall meeting where another white man, William Kostric, showed up outside with a 9 mm pistol strapped to his leg. He also carried a sign: "It is time to water the tree of liberty."

Those words are a reference to something Thomas Jefferson said in 1787: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure." Kostric, who said lists white supremacist Randy Weaver as one of his heroes, told MSNBC's Chris Matthews that he went to the school to protest because the United States is "traveling down a road at breakneck speed that's toward tyranny, away from liberty."

Acting on hate

In January, Keith Luke, a 22-year-old white man, allegedly went on a shooting spree in Brockton, Mass., fatally shot two blacks and critically wounded another. He was "fighting to save a dying race," Luke reportedly told cops. In February, the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, said the election of Obama has inflamed racist extremists who saw it "as another sign that their country is under siege by non-whites."

Between his election and Inauguration Day, Obama got more threats than any other president-elect in U.S history, said the center's Intelligence Report. Several white supremacists were charged in plots to kill Obama.

In June, James von Brunn, the 89-year-old white supremacist who killed a black guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, claimed that "Obama was created by Jews."


In another report last week, the Southern Poverty Law Center said at least 50 new anti-government militia groups have been discovered.One of them is made up of present and former police officers and soldiers. Their creation has been spurred by the presence of a black man in the White House, the center said.

"That, coupled with high levels of non-white immigration and a decline in the percentage of whites overall in America, has helped to racialize the Patriotic movement, which in the past was not primarily motivated by race hate," it concluded.

One militia near Atlanta created its own grand jury, a kangaroo court that indicted Obama for fraud and treason. His crime, it said, was that he wasn't born in the U.S. and is illegally occupying the presidency, the center reported.That threadbare lie — the charge that Obama was born abroad — has been disproved for all but the president's most rabid opponents. Even so, the suggestion that he has committed an act of treason, a crime that often carries a death penalty, is especially worrisome.

These gathering clouds should not be ignored; the price would be too high.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Obama should do what Clinton didn't

By DeWayne Wickham

Twelve years ago I urged President Clinton to play a round of golf at William Powell’s golf course. He didn’t, but President Obama should.

Powell got some long overdue recognition Wednesday on the eve of the PGA Championship, one of professional golf’s most prestigious events. The 92-year-old World War II veteran was given the PGA’s 2009 distinguished service award in a ceremony that was largely ignored by the throng of reporters who showed up to cover the golf tournament.

That’s a shame.

Powell is the first black to build, own and operate a golf course in this country. When he was denied a G.I. Bill loan for the project, Powell got two black doctors and his brother to give him the money he needed to start building he course in 1946. Back then there were few places in the United States where blacks could play golf. The color line was drawn at the front door of most country clubs, which only allowed blacks in to carry the bags of golfers, but not play the game.

When Powell’s East Canton, Ohio golf course opened in 1948, the initial 9-hole layout had no racial restrictions. He added another nine holes in 1978. If Powell’s story ended just with the building of his golf course, that could have been enough to earn the recognition the PGA just gave him. But there’s more to his story.

For much of the past 51 years, Powell has struggled to keep his golf club open. During this time precious few golfers, black or white, teed the ball up at Clearview Golf Club, where his son Larry is the course superintendent, and his daughter Renee is the club’s head pro. But Powell persevered in his belief that he could operate a golf course open to all races through ’50 and ’60, a time of great racial turbulence in America.

While building his course, Powell – an accomplished collegiate and amateur golfer – also taught his daughter the game. She eventually became good enough to spend 13 years on the LPGA tour. Renee was the second of just three black women to rise to that height in the history of women’s professional golf.

Since 2001, Powell’s golf course has been listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. But his field of dreams continues to struggle to keep its doors open. That’s due in part to its location. East Canton, Ohio is no golf Mecca. It’s not Myrtle Beach, Palm Springs, Orlando or Scottsdale, Ariz.

It also suffers because blacks, who play the game in increasing numbers each year, have not discovered Powell’s course, which is just a short distance from the Pro Football Hall of Fame. This has to change.

Clearview is a part of the racial history of this country that should be celebrated. Tiger Woods’ foundation gives a scholarship each year in honor of Powell and his wife, Marcella. But that honor draws scant attention.

“He and his family represent the best in our sport and what it means to treat one’s neighbors with dignity and respect,” the PGA said of Powell in a press release.

He represents more than that. Powell is a pioneer who opened up the game of golf for blacks long before Woods first picked up a golf club. His integrated golf course opened for play just a year after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line. While Robinson’s breakthrough is widely celebrated, Powell’s accomplishment and his course get little notice.

That surely would change if President Obama, no stranger to a history-making effort, would play the Clearview Golf Club.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Obama owes blacks this much

By DeWayne Wickham

TAMPA — There's something disarming about Valerie Jarrett, Barack Obama's consigliere, that dulled the knife I was determined to use to cut to the bone of an issue the Obama administration would rather I ignore

She's soft-spoken, quick to smile and deflects criticism of her boss — the president — with the disapproving glance of a schoolteacher who is disappointed by a student's lack of knowledge.

I got that look from Jarrett when I asked her a question that's been bugging me ever since President Obama backtracked on his harsh criticism of the Cambridge, Mass., cops who had arrested Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Asked about the arrest during a July news conference, Obama said the cops "acted stupidly."

"This has been ratcheting up, and I obviously helped to contribute ratcheting it up," the president said a few days later. Obama said he didn't mean to malign the Cambridge Police Department or Sgt. James Crowley, the arresting officer.

"I could have calibrated those words differently," Obama said.

So, when I got the chance to interview Jarrett while she was at the National Association of Black Journalists convention last week, I wanted to know whether the president has reconsidered something he said during an earlier news conference this year.

In March, ABC News correspondent Ann Compton asked Obama whether the issue of race comes up when he has policy discussions with his economic advisers. "I think that the last 64 days has been dominated by me trying to figure out how we're going to fix the economy, and that affects black, brown and white," the president answered.

But a rising tide recovery plan won't be enough to fix the economic problems of blacks whose unemployment is much higher, and family income is far lower, than that of whites. So I asked Jarrett if Obama had rethought his answer.

Pointing to the speech he gave at the NAACP convention in July, she said the president made it very clear "that if you look at the disparities in unemployment, health care and education — all these issues that are his top priorities — they are the areas in which there is suffering disproportionately in the African-American community," Jarrett said. "Everyone is aware that the issues we are tackling in the economy are disproportionately hurting African Americans."

I wish that had been the president's answer. And failing that, I wish he'd gone into the press room a couple of days later — as he did in the Gates' case — and tweaked his response.

He didn't, and that worries me.

Too many blacks — especially black journalists — are reluctant to ask tough questions about what the Obama administration is doing to improve the lives of African Americans. They fear it will embarrass the president, or give his political enemies something to use against him. I worry that not raising these questions — or not getting good answers when we do — will do even greater damage.

Black voters turned out in record numbers to put Obama in the White House. Like any other members of a winning coalition, blacks expect, and deserve, to reap some benefits of the victory they helped make possible.

That, I think, was the point of the question Compton asked Obama. And it was certainly the thrust of the one I put to Jarrett. While her deft handling of my question was disarming, I would like to have heard the president speak those words.