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Inauguration Benediction Controversy

January 21, 2009

Yesterday was a good day. The weather in eastern PA, while cold, was beautifully clear and the sun reflecting off the snow covered hills gave the landscape of my commute a glow suggesting an hours-long sunrise. On top of all that natural beauty was the fact that Barack Hussein Obama became the 44th president of the United States of America. I conveniently took my lunch from 11.45am-12.45pm so I could sneak away to a local sports/politics-for-a-day bar to watch the festivities taking place in Washington, D.C. I walked in the establishment in the middle of Rick Warren’s prayer and thought it was good–but nothing like what was to come. The Williams orchestration was wonderful and made only better by the fact that Obama became president while Yo Yo Ma was entertaining the crowd. The swearing-in could have gone better, Obama’s speech was fantastic, and the poet was ridiculously nervous and pretty bad. But the closing benediction by Rev. Joseph Lowery blew me away.

Throughout this campaign I have found great joy in experiencing those who have dedicated their lives to the fight for racial justice respond to the election of President Obama. From Jesse Jackson’s tears on election night to the countless interviews with Rep. John Lewis I have been impressed with the continued passion for justice found in the fathers and mothers of the Civil Rights movement. Rev. Lowery did not let me down.

There has been a great deal of controversy surrounding these lines:

Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around … when yellow will be mellow … when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right. That all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen. (emphasis mine; full transcript here)

I contest that the controversy surrounding the closing of this benediction is unfounded. I believe that most people who found this statement insensitive or offensive do not have the proper context for the quote or the movement.

Rev. Lowery is most certainly quoting the blues song, “Get Back (Black, Brown, White)” by Big Bill Broonzy from the early 1950s. The third verse and chorus reads:

I went to an employment office,
I got a number and I got in line,
They called everybody’s number,
But they never did call mine.
They said: “If you was white,
You’s alright,
If you was brown,
You could stick around,
But as you’s black, hmm, hmm, brother,
Get back, get back, get back.”

This song, when released, was given virtually no air time and created great controversy across the music world and the nation in general. Rev. Lowery was not attempting to insult all white people, but rather afford hope for universal equality.

It is vitally important to understand the context of a statement before taking offense. As Atticus Finch says:

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view–until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. January 21, 2009 2:27 pm

    The benediction was wonderful, especially after that not-so-good poem.

  2. mcnorman permalink
    January 21, 2009 2:39 pm

    Shame on this man and anyone else who believes that they can walk in my shoes.
    It is vitally important to understand the context of a statement before taking offense.
    I am not white.
    I would never expect anyone to understand my path. It has been a long walk through life where many things seemed so wrong however, it is MY path. One that I must bear. Each individual must take accountability for their chosen path.
    I am insulted that this man believes that he represents me with this choice of words.
    This is a man of the cloth? One who has yet to work through his path, yet he believes his words will inspire. His pain is no less and no greater than anyone else who has endured hate. Move on…it is sad to see a man hang onto the exact hate that he so much wants to see disappear.

  3. iantrevor permalink*
    January 21, 2009 3:14 pm

    So are you suggesting that we cannot emphasize with someone else? No matter how many times I read the transcript, I cannot even fathom that there is an ounce of hate in his speech.

  4. January 21, 2009 6:36 pm

    I somehow missed the benediction, so while I did read the transcript, I may not be able to fully appreciate the context of the comment. However, I have always believed that it is impossible for us to get past race in this country if we keep calling attention to it. So I can see how it would be troubling to many to hear, on a day that was supposed to signify this country’s move past race as an issue, to hear such stereotypes mentioned in a prayer. I don’t think his words were hateful, but ill-advised none the less.

    Furthermore, during the election cycle, more than one white individual who did not vote for President Obama because of his views on issues such as the wars, the economy, abortion, etc. was called a racist. I know this from repeated personal experience. A majority of these people could care less about the color of his skin. In its vague reference to the stereotype that white people are naturally racist, the comment would make many such individuals recall the unfounded accusations they experienced throughout the summer and the fall.

    Aren’t all racial stereotypes shameful regardless of who they target. We are all equal in the eyes of God. I will get over my own tendency to be offended and five Rev. Lowrey the benefit of the doubt, but I think that a call for racial reconciliation could have been better worded.

  5. mcnorman permalink
    January 21, 2009 6:38 pm

    iantrevor, you mean empathize not emphasize right?
    You are certainly welcome to empathize with anyone. YOU will NEVER know what they have gone through because it is not possible.
    Your life is a woven tapestry that no one except God knows. How it interplays and interweaves its patterns is what gives you life experiences that no one can ever experience as you do.

  6. Kim Driver permalink
    January 21, 2009 11:11 pm

    So basically the writer of the article is suggesting in his last couple of paragraphs, that if a white person were to quote a song which was derrogatory toward black people, that this would be okay as long as this white person had some negative experience in the past from which to pull his remark from. NO, absolutely not. Noone is entitled to make a racial comment, whether you are referring to a song, or not, which stereotypes a group of people negatively. I totally agree this was ill-advised and hopefully not example of the “change” that is supposedly coming to America.

  7. January 21, 2009 11:15 pm

    You can’t take this event out of context, Kim. Your supposition is not valid because there’s not a glaring history of black people oppressing white people in America. Sure, I wish we as a nation could move past race, but we’re a long way from that.

  8. January 22, 2009 9:52 am

    This conversation has made me remember something I heard at the 50th Anniversary Commemoration of the Desegregation of Little Rock Central High School. When he spoke, one of the Nine, I believe it was Terrence Roberts, said, “We could be past race tomorrow. We just have to wake up and decide that race wasn’t going to matter anymore.” Of course, getting several million people to all decide not to be racist is much easier said than done. But I can’t help but think continuing to remind us all of the old divisions hinders that. I’m not saying we should stick our heads in the sand, but we should avoid at all costs racial stereotypes. It’s the only way to leave our history of hate behind.

    Sorry, didn’t mean to turn this into a dissertation on race in America, but I’ve just spent the last two years studying the history of race relations in Arkansas!

  9. January 22, 2009 11:07 am

    I always appreciate your input, Kara. My only class this semester is Civil Rights Era Literature so I’ve recently become immersed in the history of race relations, particularly those of the South. I think it’s an incredibly valuable discussion and it’s my belief that we can’t move into a post-racial society without open and frank discussion about the issues surrounding race.

  10. Nola permalink
    January 24, 2009 9:45 am

    Anytime you have to explain why someone shouldn’t be offended is a warning sign that the wrong choice of words were chosen. You shouldn’t have to study the history of race or know lame horrible poetry to understand “you shouldn’t be offended”. That mentality is a guaranteed practice of inserting your foot into your mouth. You can’t tell anyone they shouldn’t be offended. Offended is a feeling and everyone has a right to feel whatever they want. I think it was a very very poor choice and offended many many people. Coming from a so called man of God that was a poor example of someone who walks with Jesus Christ. Would Jesus have chosen those words in that event? You think about that.

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