As Barack Obama left Sylvia’s soul food restaurant on Thursday night after a meeting with Rev. Al Sharpton, he said, “It always feels good” to be back in Harlem.
The visit to Harlem was Obama’s first as a presidential candidate, and if the intention was to strike a stark contrast between the popular support he enjoys here compared to Sen. Hillary Clinton, who held a relatively tame “homecoming” rally in the neighborhood just a few weeks ago, well, the goal was achieved. Obama was all smiles as he climbed into an SUV that was about to take him to the Apollo Theater, the last in a series of events designed to serve as a public demonstration of his appeal to black voters. He had also used his time here to court Sharpton, one of the few black power players who hasn’t endorsed Clinton—or anyone else for that matter.
“Obama said he was coming to town, and that he’d like to come by the office and he did and he said let’s ride by Sylvias’s together and I said fine,” Sharpton, sitting in front of a table of soul food, said after Obama left. “I’m very happy that he’s decided to come out on the hate crimes issue. No one should be president without addressing this problem.
He added, “There has not been a priority given to issues of African Americans and the issues of racial disparity.”
A few minutes later, on the Apollo stage, Obama addressed those exact concerns.
“I’m in this race because I’m tired of reading about Jena,” said Obama. “Tired of reading about nooses. I’m tired of hearing about a justice department that doesn’t understand justice. We will have a civil rights division that actually investigates crimes; you will have a civil rights division that believes in justice and equality for all Americans.”
In an empathetic and often times confrontational speech delivered from the stage of the historic theater, Obama underlined the groundbreaking nature of his candidacy (as compared, by implication, to Hillary Clinton’s).
“I don’t want to wake up and find out four years from now that we missed this window of opportunity to finally bring about the kind of changes that all of us have been dreaming about and hoping about for so very long,” Obama said. “We cannot wait, that’s why we are doing it now.”
At the end of the speech, he brought the packed house to its feet by saying, “That’s why I need you to stand up with me New York, that’s why I can’t do this myself. I know I can lead this country. I need you to stand up with me, because change doesn’t happen from the top down, change happens from the bottom up.“
The contrast was unmistakable between the Obama event and Clinton’s homecoming in October at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. At Clinton’s event, empty seats dotted the balcony and elected officials paying their respects to the Clintons and her strong supporter Rep. Charlie Rangel accounted for much of the audience on the floor. Before the Obama fund-raiser, a line of supporters waiting in the cold snaked around 125th street, Frederick Douglas Ave and 126th street. One guy with a sparkly earing working the metal detectors said the chaos and size of the crowd was “worse than Jay-Z.”
At the church event, Clinton was introduced by Rangel, the dean of the New York Congressional delegation, and many of the state’s most influential elected officials were in attendance. Last night, Obama had state senator Bill Perkins, who was quickly able to point out the few members of the state assembly and city council in the crowd. One of those council members, at least, said the difference worked in Obama’s favor.
“No comparison whatsoever,” said the city council member, Charles Barron. “That was staged. It was propped up by the pastors and the leaders; this is propped up by the masses. That’s a big difference.” He added, “Why wouldn’t black people support a black candidate who is ready to lead America?”
That was a message many of the introductory speakers seemed to be getting at.
After gospel singers sang “Amazing Grace” and “Happy Day,” a preacher prayed for Obama to maintain his good judgment and Professor Cornel West said of Obama, “There is a difference between being articulate and eloquent and he is an eloquent brother.” He then asked the audience, “How does it feel to be on the right side of history?”
A few minutes later, the comedian Chris Rock picked up on that theme. “You’d be really embarrassed if he won and you wasn’t with him,” Rock said. He altered his voice to comic affect. “‘I had that white lady. What was I thinking? What was I thinking?’”
When Obama finally took the stage, in front of an enormous American flag and dressed in a dark suit and silver tie, the crowd erupted. One cheering woman, Yvonne Lee, wore a yellow shirt that said “Who decided Hillary is the best for the black community?” Another, Farnesse France, punctuated Obama’s remarks about the sort of leader the country needed by adding approvingly that the country also stood to gain “Somebody who is good on the eyes as well.”
In his speech, Obama seemed to suggest that a vote for Clinton was a defeatist one.
“You are not willing to just settle for what the cynics are telling you you have to settle for,” he said. “But you instead are willing to reach for what is possible.”