03/28/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Race and Symbolism in the House Gallery

At the end of his first address to a joint session of Congress Tuesday night President Barack Obama gave the nation yet another "teaching moment" on race relations in America. The President's description of Ty'Sheoma Bethea's school sounded like a pre-Brown tar-paper shack from the Jim Crow era: "And I think about Ty'Sheoma Bethea, the young girl from that school I visited in Dillon, South Carolina -- a place where the ceilings leak, the paint peels off the walls, and they have to stop teaching six times a day because the train barrels by their classroom."

He shared the poignant story of this remarkable girl who took the initiative to write the White House asking for any kind of assistance for her dilapidated elementary school. "She has been told that her school is hopeless," the president said, "but the other day after class she went to the public library and typed up a letter to the people sitting in this room. She even asked her principal for the money to buy a stamp. The letter asks us for help, and says, 'We are just students trying to become lawyers, doctors, congressmen like yourself and one day president, so we can make a change to not just the state of South Carolina but also the world. We are not quitters.'"

First Lady Michelle Obama stood next to Ms. Bethea proudly beaming at her while the entire power structure of the United States of America gave her a standing ovation. Although the mainstream media missed its significance it was clearly the highlight of the evening.

That moment crystallized about two centuries of American history. Any other First Lady standing next to Ty'Sheoma might have given off the air of a contrivance, as if the girl was merely a stage prop for powerful white people to feel good about themselves. But with Michelle Obama standing next to her one could see that this courageous girl had a lot in common with the First Lady. Ms. Obama's ebullient expression seemed to say that she saw herself in Ty'Sheoma: An African-American girl from a modest background who worked hard taking advantage of educational opportunities to become a success. She could have had her two daughters by her side but instead chose to honor an underprivileged girl from the rural Deep South (while the president triggered a standing ovation).

That very public display of Ty'Sheoma Bethea's struggle highlighted the decrepit schools thousands of African-American children are forced to endure in South Carolina under Governor Mark Sanford. The Republican Governor has national political ambitions and Ty'Sheoma's story underscores the unfinished business in South Carolina (and elsewhere in the South) regarding race relations, poverty, and inequality. It also illustrated the heartlessness of Governor Sanford's posturing against accepting badly needed stimulus money for his state, resources that might help build better classrooms for South Carolinians like Ty'Sheoma Bethea.

The Obamas' decision to introduce the country to Ty'Sheoma Bethea in such a powerful setting hopefully also sent a message to the Republican National Committee. It goes something like this: You can go ahead and put in charge of your party Michael Steele, the first ever African-American to chair the RNC -- that's great; but don't expect to win over many black voters while the Obamas are in charge unless you're willing to do something concrete for the Ty'Sheoma Betheas of the world.