Gwen Ifill’s ‘The Breakthrough’

A look at the much-anticipated book on black political leaders in the Obama generation.


From the book The Breakthrough by Gwen Ifill.  © 2009 by Gwen Ifill. Posted by arrangement with Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc.. 

chapter three 

baRack obaMa  

If you were to get a handbook on what’s the path to the presidency, I don’t think that the handbook would start by saying, “Be an African American named Barack Obama.”  —Barack Obama  

Two events in the course of Barack Obama’s tumultuous twenty-one-month campaign for president stand as testament to the clashing impulses of race and politics. One occurred on a bitterly cold morning in Atlanta, Georgia, the other on a perfect balmy evening in Denver, Colorado.

A light snow dusted rooftops and a thin sheen of ice coated the reflecting pool at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site on Auburn Avenue the January day Obama arrived. This was unusual weather in the Deep South, and all across town, churches canceled Sunday morning services. But not at Ebenezer Baptist Church. Not on the King holiday weekend.

Obama, who almost exactly one year later would be sworn in as the nation’s first African American president, had an appointment that day in Dr. King’s pulpit—or at least in the new version of it. The congregation at Ebenezer now worshiped in a soaring, modern sanctu­ary directly across the street from the old red brick church, which still stands. The future president laid a wreath on the graves of Martin and his wife, Coretta, who are buried next door. 
Obama had come to Atlanta, a city where every other downtown street seems to be named after peaches or 1960s civil rights leaders, to pay his respects. Just the night before, Hillary Clinton had beaten him like a drum in the Nevada Democratic caucuses, and he was in need of reassurance. The warm and welcoming Sunday morning crowd was eager to supply it. 

Two thousand worshipers filled the sanctuary to the rafters. Hundreds more who could not get in braved the frigid weather out­side to listen via loudspeakers. Here was the familiar: an African American candidate for office entering a sanctuary while a choir sang James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known as the Negro national anthem. (Bill Clinton famously knew every word of every verse.) Next the candidate and the ministers clasped hands as the congregation swayed and joined in the full-throated sing­ing of “We Shall Overcome.” The choir, surrounding the candidate on three sides and draped in kente cloth, broke into the rollicking gospel song “Victory Is Mine”: I told Satan, get thee behind; victory today is mine. 

“We don’t take this pulpit lightly,” the Reverend Raphael G. Warnock said as he introduced Obama. “We invited this brother be­cause he’s committed, he’s brilliant. He has a spiritual foundation. And he is the embodiment of the American dream. Regardless of whether you are a Democrat, a Republican, or an independent, when you think about the long history of America, Barack Obama makes us proud.” 

Congregants, crammed into every seat on the floor and the balcony, all but willed the young senator to bring them to their feet. But the candidate had other things in mind. This sermon would not be about race. Not exactly. 

“Unity is the great need of the hour,” he told the worshipers. “It is the great need of this hour as well. Not because it sounds pleasant or because it makes us feel good, but because it’s the only way we can overcome the essential deficit that exists in this country.” 

Then Obama slipped into what would become a running theme when he addressed black audiences: spreading the blame around. “All of us understand intimately the insidious role that race still sometimes plays—on the job, in the schools, in our health care system, and in our criminal justice system,” he said. “And yet, if we are honest with our­selves, we must admit that none of our hands are entirely clean. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll acknowledge that our own community has not always been true to King’s vision of a beloved community.” 

This was classic Obama. When given the chance to talk about race in the ways most expected to hear, he resisted. Race was worth talk­ing about, he thought, but only in the context of broader issues. You would never catch this black man with his fist in the air.