The high road is a hard road.
Barack Obama is often compared to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. because of his soaring rhetoric and charismatic grace. But on Tuesday I night I realized that Obama is more like King in another way: He is leading a 21st Century non-violent, political campaign.
Over the past week the kitchen sink came flying at Obama, the political equivalent of Selma tear gas and vicious Birmingham dogs. The Clinton campaign tried painting Obama with the "scary Muslim" label by releasing a photo of him in Somali dress. Hillary whined that she was being treated unfairly during the debates, even as she piled on in a ruthless and unwarranted exchange that floated the suggestion that Barack was an anti-Semite.
She ignored her decades of political entanglements with dozens of indicted and convicted felons while charging Obama with having secret negotiations with Canada to assuage fears about his stance on NAFTA. She declared that because she was a woman, her presidency would represent change, even though her current fighting tactics and those she would resort to in a battle against McCain are recycled tricks from her eight years of living in the White House.
Many Obama supporters are angry and desperately want Barack to fight back. Time to pick up the mud and get to slingin'! But Barack is asking us to do something different. He is asking us to trust that he is tough enough to absorb the blows and remain firmly planted on the political high road he is trying to blaze for the country. Sound familiar? Dr. King understood the natural human instinct to defend oneself against attack. But he believed that only by not reciprocating with viciousness can people reveal their attackers for what they are and create a more just world.
When Obama made the choice to run for President, he did something that Hillary Clinton lacked the courage to do in 2004. He decided to seek the presidency even though it was not yet "his turn." Four years ago Hillary Clinton stayed safely ensconced in the Senate even though Americans were suffering from worsening educational outcomes, accelerating environmental degradation and the deepening failure of our war efforts under W's administration.
Rather than challenge an incumbent President, Hillary bided her time and waited for an open seat race. When she announced her candidacy it was because she felt nearly assured of an easy path to victory.
Obama could have followed Clinton's lead and simply waited until he had a less formidable opponent. His fierce urgency was not driven solely by a desire to change policy, but also by the need to change our politics. He saw a demobilized and demoralized electorate that no longer believes their voices matter.
By getting into the race he called cynical voters to their higher and better selves. For six weeks this movement of a new American politics has swept up voters of every demographic and in every region. And over the past week it has been severely tested.
On Monday night I had dinner with my friend and colleague James Cone, the father of black liberation theology. I expressed to him my fears that the smear machine would defeat Barack and that it might be time to fight back with every dirty secret and low tactic possible. Cone put down his fork, looked at me unblinking and said, "Melissa, you must remember that undeserved suffering is redemptive."
We cannot abandon the high road just because it is rocky. We must peer even harder into our unknowable future to try to see a beloved community that is outlined there. Nobody promised us a crystal stair, but it is time to keep climbing.
Melissa Harris-Lacewell is an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University.