10 December 2013

How Obama the student discovered he could move a crowd at an anti-apartheid demonstration

In his speech at today's memorial service for Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama referred to his first political experience at a student anti-apartheid demonstration.

He did not, however, mention the fact that it also appears to have been the moment when he discovered that he had an ability to move and interact with an audience - as described in his own words (Chapter 5 of his book Dreams from my Father - with some key passages highlighted in italics):

   It was around that time that I got involved in the divestment campaign. It had started as something of a lark, I suppose, part of the radical pose my friends and I sought to maintain, a subconscious end run around issues closer to home. But as the months passed and I found myself drawn into a larger role-contacting representatives of the African National Congress to speak on campus, drafting letters to the faculty, printing up flyers, arguing strategy-I noticed that people had begun to listen to my opinions. It was a discovery that made me hungry for words. Not words to hide behind but words that could carry a message, support an idea. When we started planning the rally for the trustees’ meeting, and somebody suggested that I open the thing, I quickly agreed. I figured I was ready, and could reach people where it counted. I thought my voice wouldn’t fail me.


   Let’s see, now. What was it that I had been thinking in those days leading up to the rally? The agenda had been carefully arranged beforehand-I was only supposed to make a few opening remarks, in the middle of which a couple of white students would come onstage dressed in their paramilitary uniforms to drag me away. A bit of street theater, a way to dramatize the situation for activists in South Africa. I knew the score, had helped plan the script. Only, when I sat down to prepare a few notes for what I might say, something had happened. In my mind it somehow became more than just a two-minute speech, more than a way to prove my political orthodoxy. I started to remember my father’s visit to Miss Hefty’s class; the look on
Coretta’s face that day; the power of my father’s words to transform. If I could just find the right words, I had thought to myself. With the right words everything could change-South Africa, the lives of ghetto kids just a few miles away, my own tenuous place in the world.

   I was still in that trancelike state when I mounted the stage. For I don’t know how long, I just stood there, the sun in my eyes, the crowd of a few hundred restless after lunch. A couple of students were throwing a Frisbee on the lawn; others were standing off to the side, ready to break off to the library at any moment. Without waiting for a cue, I stepped up to the microphone.
“There’s a struggle going on,” I said. My voice barely carried beyond the first few rows. A few people looked up, and I waited for the crowd to quiet.

   “I say, there’s a struggle going on!” The Frisbee players stopped. “It’s happening an ocean away. But it’s a struggle that touches each and every one of us. Whether we
know it or not. Whether we want it or not. A struggle that demands we choose sides. Not between black and white. Not between rich and poor. No-it’s a harder choice than that. It’s a choice between dignity and servitude. Between fairness and injustice. Between commitment and indifference. A choice between right and wrong...”

   I stopped. The crowd was quiet now, watching me. Somebody started to clap. “Go on with it, Barack,” somebody else shouted. “Tell it like it is.” Then the others started in, clapping, cheering, and I knew that I had them, that the connection had been made. I took hold of the mike, ready to plunge on, when I felt someone’s hands grabbing me from behind. It was just as we’d planned it, Andy and Jonathan looking grim- faced behind their dark glasses. They started yanking me off the stage, and I was supposed to act like I was trying to break free, except a part of me wasn’t acting, I really wanted to stay up there, to hear my voice bouncing off the crowd and returning back to me in applause. I had so much left to say.

   But my part was over. I stood on the side as Marcus stepped up to the mike in his white T-shirt and denims, lean and dark and straight-backed and righteous. He explained to the audience what they had just witnessed, why the administration’s waffling on the issue of South Africa was unacceptable.... 

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