11/27/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Reflections on Race from the Nation's Capital

Whenever I come to Washington, D.C. I always take time to make certain pilgrimages.

I enjoy sitting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the place where Martin Luther King electrified the nation with his "I Have a Dream" speech. I try to imagine the hope that permeated the crowd on that sweltering August day in 1963.

I also go to Arlington National Cemetery to visit the grave of NAACP Field Secretary in Mississippi Medgar Evers, one of the early martyrs within the civil rights movement. His assassination occurred in arguably the most chaotic 24 hours in American history.

June 11, 1963, began with the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk at a busy intersection in downtown Saigon. Alabama Gov. George Wallace stood symbolically in front of the University of Alabama to prohibit two Negro students from registering for classes. President John F. Kennedy addressed the nation that evening elevating the cause of civil rights to a moral issue.

These events occurred before Byron De La Beckwith hid in the bushes and cowardly shot Evers in the back as he returned to his Jackson, Miss. home.

Though tragic, Evers death also symbolizes the hope during a very hostile time in 1963. But 46 years later, in many ways, America is a very different place. Hard to imagine two years ago Rep. Barbara Lee, president of the Congressional Black Caucus would have the honor of introducing an African American commander in chief, as she did at the annual CBC conference dinner.

Many attending the conference see racism still at work. They view many of the protests against President Barack Obama as nothing more than thinly veiled racism. And some would conclude that "thinly veiled" is giving the behavior the benefit of doubt.

From the street corner where I stand, signs that refer to the president as "primate in chief" or the American taxpayers as the "Jews for Obama's oven," reflect overt racism and hatred of the highest order.

When South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson called the president a liar before a joint session of Congress, how would reasonable people define that one? Wilson's defenders point to the vitriol leveled toward former President George W. Bush by liberals during his eight years in the White House.

But no one on the left felt the former president's actions justified publicly disrespecting the office of president of the United States or the House chamber.

Was it Obama's policy on health care or the percentage of melanin in his skin that led to Wilson's uncontrollable urge to forget the setting by calling the president on his alleged mendacity?

Wilson's political background, which includes favoring keeping the Confederate flag flying at the South Carolina statehouse, robs him of portraying himself of a populist swept up in the moment -- at least from my perspective.

I agree with former President Jimmy Carter who recently stated: "When a radical fringe element of demonstrators and others begin to attack the president of the United States as an animal or as a reincarnation of Adolf Hitler or when they wave signs in the air that said we should have buried Obama with Kennedy, those kinds of things are beyond the bounds."

We have certainly witnessed an unhinged element of the country that few would conclude were not racist. But should we make the nuts emblematic of the whole?

If the fringe were remotely close to a majority, there is no way Barack Hussein Obama would be the 44th President of the United States. I find the subtext to most discussions on racism depend greatly on who decides what's racist. Is it the perceived victim or victimizer?

Those accused of racism talk about their intentions, while those feeling the pain of racism talk about their experience. This makes racism in the public conversation the elephant in the room -- an emotion-based conversation with each side feeling right rests solely with their perspective.

Moreover, any discussion on the impact of racism that does not include poverty is, in my opinion, useless. I suspect that we will continue to discuss poverty long after the need to discuss racism has diminished.

But racism cannot and should not be ignored. I would certainly welcome the day when racism is truly behind us, confined to the ash pile of irrelevance along with the fringe groups who seek to keep its flickering embers alive.

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist and blog-talk radio host. He is the author of Strip Mall Patriotism: Moral Reflections of the Iraq War. E-mail him at or visit his Web site:

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