An Exercise in Missing the Point

I’ve read commentary from a bunch of conservatives who are upset about Rev. Joseph E. Lowery’s benediction at President Obama’s inauguration on Tuesday. Glenn Beck hated it and I’ve read others even call it racist. The text setting people off is the closing stanza:

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.

What people miss–and what took a good deal of Googleing for me to find–is that Rev. Lowery is paraphrasing an old anti-racist blues standard by Big Bill Broonzy called “Black, Brown, and White.” Lyrics and history can be found here. In 1947, Broonzy couldn’t get the song published anywhere in the U.S. because of its message, so he had to do it in Europe.

Rev. Lowery’s benediction was actually my favorite part of the ceremony on Tuesday. He made better poetry than Elizabeth Alexander’s clunker and he was a better prayer than Rick Warren’s evangelicalish. Maybe it was Lowery’s classic southern accent that did the trick for me.

Rev. Lowery reminds us that just because an African American is president doesn’t mean that the fight against racism is over. The man himself is 87, co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Council, and faced fire hydrants and attack dogs in order to simply vote. Obama’s inauguration was a joyous day for Rev. Lowery and for many minority Americans, the culmination of decades of hard, dangerous work. Accusing Rev. Lowery of bringing race into the picture is missing the point. Given the occasion, it’s perfectly appropriate to talk about how far we’ve come, and where we still need to go. Charity is called for.

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