"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
With Martin Luther King Jr.’s 80th birthday celebration only a day before Barack Obama becomes our first black president, it’s impossible not to focus on the redemptive symmetry between 1968, when King was murdered, and 2008, the year of Obama’s unlikely victory. But I find myself thinking much more about 1966 as I wonder whether and how Obama can complete King’s work.
1966 was likewise full of Obama-King echoes: That was the year Obama’s city, Chicago, devastated King when he moved his racial equality crusade north. It’s the year King faced a growing white and black backlash. Most important, it’s officially the year civil rights liberalism died, when Ronald Reagan defeated California Gov. Pat Brown, running against Brown’s supposed tolerance for black Watts rioters and Berkeley radicals, channeling white fears of the urban violence King opposed, and riding a backlash against the civil rights and Great Society reforms King inspired. Two years before Richard Nixon honed the GOP’s Southern Strategy, Reagan at once beat Brown and vanquished liberalism, and liberalism “never really recovered,” Matthew Dallek wrote in “The Right Moment,” his book about Reagan’s first victory.
But lo, these 40 years later, a great black leader rose from the rough racial politics of Chicago to defeat the GOP strategy of scapegoating, fear and racism. The McCain-Palin campaign tried but couldn’t smear Obama as a shadowy socialist who pals around with terrorists and wants to give your money to people who don’t deserve it, the heir to the Black Panthers and Bill Ayers’ Weather Underground all at the same time. Some 42 years after Reagan figured out how to thwart King’s optimism and use the excesses of civil rights and antiwar radicals against Democrats, Obama put together a glorious multiracial Democratic coalition to defeat that grim GOP vision.
Clearly Obama’s race as well as his commitment to equality and opportunity for all makes him a powerful symbol of King’s legacy. “I may not get there with you,” King prophetically told supporters the night before he died, “but I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.” Some 40 years later, are we there yet? Obama echoed King (and Sam Cooke) on election night: “It’s been a long time coming, but change has come to America.” But how much and what kind of change, and will it be enough?
Of course King was an activist and agitator; Obama will be president. Comparisons may obscure as much as they illuminate. Still, on the day we celebrate King’s life, it’s hard not to think about the ways Obama does and does not resemble him, and will and won’t complete his work. What do the two men have in common? Are their goals the same? Their methods? Their political genius?
In his fascinating book “What Obama Means,” Jabari Asim approvingly quotes James Baldwin on what made King so effective, and observes that it applies to Obama. It was King’s “intimate knowledge of the people he is addressing, be they black or white,” Baldwin wrote, “and the forthrightness with which he speaks of those things which hurt or baffle them.” King’s “intimate knowledge” of white people, his sensitivity to the things that “hurt or baffle them,” was extraordinary for his time. He criticized but didn’t demonize white people; he refused to drive white liberals and radicals out of the civil rights movement (he was overruled in groups he didn’t head like CORE and SNCC); he appealed to their conscience, to their faith in America’s founding belief in equality and in their own goodness.
I’ve read all three Taylor Branch books about King and David Garrow, too, and I still can’t really grasp how King was able to be so kind to white people, given the era in which he lived. It seems it was mainly his spiritual and political commitment to nonviolence, a brand of engaged Christianity that drew from Gandhi, Niebuhr and the African-American church. He could also do the math; he knew he couldn’t make change without white people. And he had a class consciousness; he saw early that the sufferings of poor whites in Uptown Chicago and Latinos in Cesar Chavez’s California had a lot in common. He agreed with his friend Bayard Rustin that if blacks were free tomorrow far too many would still be poor, and the civil rights movement needed an economic component to be successful.
Obama’s understanding of and compassion toward white people is equally profound and politically important. But Obama, unlike King, came to his warm acceptance of white people at least partly because he was raised by them. I note that not to try to claim Obama as our 44th white president, or our first biracial president (or our sixth, depending on whom you believe). I think about race the same way Obama does, and I call him black, which is what he calls himself — while I also argue we must acknowledge the significance of his white family, as he does. Looking at the marvelous success of Obama’s two-year presidential campaign, I have sometimes found myself wondering whether our first black president could have been anything but half-white — and to be even more specific, a black man raised by his white mother and grandparents in our most racially progressive state, Hawaii.
When I read “Dreams From My Father,” I was blown away by Obama’s compassion for and understanding of race-mixers like his mother and her parents, who were, let’s be honest, quite uncommon as the ’50s made way for the ’60s. As I wrote in my blog last year, I admired the way Obama “tracks his grandparents’ acceptance of their daughter’s marrying a black man to their own willingness to leave their native Kansas for ever more different environs: Texas, Seattle and finally Hawaii. He notes the curiosity and openness to change and difference that often mark the white race-mixer, as well as a certain tendency to be a misfit in the buttoned-down white world of achievement.”
Obama’s white family gave him the “intimate” knowledge of white people Baldwin (and Asim) believed was crucial to King’s success, and that indubitably helped make Obama president. That isn’t a widely shared point of view, even among my friends. Right after Obama’s victory I had dinner with a multiracial group of friends, activists and academics, and we got to talking about the latest “60 Minutes,” when Steve Kroft asked Obama about the African-Americans who never believed they’d see a black president. A world-renowned African-American scholar marveled at the way Obama never answered the question by pointing to the doubts and pride of his mother-in-law, Marian Robinson, so as never to himself reflect a pessimism about America’s perfectibility. He thought it was an admirable political feint; I thought it was, quite possibly, the truth: Maybe Obama never doubted he could be president because of his race, at least partly because he’s half-white.
Again, I don’t say that to minimize or deny his identity as an African-American. And I don’t know Obama; I could be wrong, and he may have harbored racial doubt about his prospects in the campaign. But he didn’t seem to. Obama’s biracial identity gave him an invaluable kind of social capital. He grew up loved and accepted by members of the white majority community, and he himself had deep, intimate knowledge of that same community. It may have given him an unusual confidence, for an African-American man, about what he could accomplish, plus an intimate, wise, compassionate knowledge of white America that was crucial in his winning (much of) it over.
In the end, though, Obama has become president not so much because whites let him, as because blacks did. They did not torpedo him with skittish white voters by demanding special racial promises. They propelled him to victory in many primaries and backed him almost unanimously in the general election. At times Jesse Jackson and Tavis Smiley and Al Sharpton wanted more, but Obama didn’t give it to them, and most black voters said that’s OK. They trusted him to be a president who would advance the civil rights agenda without campaigning overtly on what he’d achieve specifically for blacks. Latinos, too, trusted Obama, without a lot of knowledge or special promises, even after a divisive primary battle with Hillary Clinton. Asian Americans did the same. Both groups voted for him 2-to-1.
Obama won because the nation changed demographically, not so much because white people changed. He did better among white voters than John Kerry, which is great progress, but if the country had the same racial makeup it did when Michael Dukakis ran for president, McCain would have won. Still, it was King’s work that paved the road a black man could travel to the White House, to lead this multiracial country in a time of profound national and global crisis, just when we need him most. Yet we are still a country that discards too much of its black talent, too much talent and too many people of every race, and that’s the part of King’s dream Obama must work hardest to complete.
If King were alive today, I think he’d have marveled at how little racial politics, particularly ugly racial polarization, ultimately played a role in the election that chose our first black president. If I take the long King view, I feel the same way; on the other hand, when I look back at the campaign, it’s hard not to remember how much time we spent on real or imagined racial issues, starting with the curious firestorm over Hillary Clinton’s remarks (ironically, on this holiday) about King and Lyndon Johnson, through the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s turn on the national stage, through Clinton’s widely attacked comment about Robert Kennedy’s assassination while pointing to precedents for Democratic primaries to last into June. As I’ve written before, I sometimes felt sorry for both Hillary and Bill Clinton, who, despite a few flubs during the campaign, have spent their lives working on civil rights only to be called racists during the campaign. I became a conscientious objector to the war over who played the so-called race card in the primary, except to say I believe both camps did sometimes — and yet they did so far less than anyone probably would have predicted before the campaign began.
Still, at times Obama seemed to have the best of both worlds, politically: The self-confidence that comes from being raised (and loved, intimately, from Day One) by the white majority, while also being protected from any perceptible threat of racism by black and white supporters admirably determined to identify and crush it when it surfaced.
Historians may find that this double force field protected Obama; certainly, we saw it in the primaries, when anything that could be remotely perceived as a racial diss to Obama, by the Clintons, their supporters or the media, ignited a firestorm and damaging charges of racism against whomever slurred — or simply slipped — in their treatment of the black Democratic candidate. I enjoyed the anti-racist media strikeforce when it hit Fox News for its idiotic “slips” labeling Barack and Michelle’s affectionate fist-bump a possible “terrorist” gesture, and describing Obama’s wife of 16 years as his “baby mama.” I liked it much less when it was directed at outlets I respect, like the New Yorker (or Salon). I still can’t believe the backlash against the New Yorker’s hilarious (in my opinion) fist-bump cover, sending up all the right wing’s dumbest, least believable slurs against Michelle and Barack Obama. His supporters howled with outrage, and his campaign bit back, too, with even Obama himself lamenting that the cartoon might be misunderstood by confused voters.
The campaign’s worst racial controversy came over the Rev. Wright. Looking back, I can be convinced that I overreacted slightly to Wright’s bluster, but I still think the Wright issue was important. I never believed Obama shared his views that the Sept. 11 attacks represented “the chickens coming home to roost,” that al-Qaida terrorists were like freedom fighters from the days of slavery, that the government gave AIDS to black people, that black children learn differently from white people, or the way in certain speeches he used “white” as an epithet or a negative modifier. Wright was important because people still didn’t know who Obama was and what he believed in. When Wright gave those speeches, he didn’t look like he was creating Dr. King’s “beloved community” to me. Readers compared Wright’s incendiary rhetoric to the words King used in his landmark Riverside Church address about the Vietnam War. But there was a sneering and self-important edge to Wright’s tone (I see it in Rev. Rick Warren’s as well) that was not in King’s pained exegesis of American culpability for violence, or in any speech of his I’ve ever read.
Plus, in the years I’ve tried to make a difference on issues of education and community development, I’ve found the divisive bluster of the Wrights of the world to be an impediment to social change, despite the good work they do in low-income communities. I wanted to be sure Obama embraced not Wright’s divisive views, but the racial ministry and activism of groups like Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, with its emphasis on black self-help as well as government programs, its candor about the importance of parenting in changing the odds for poor African American students, as well as improving what goes on in the classroom. (Full disclosure, Canada and I sit on the board of PolicyLink, but I don’t admire him because I’m on the board; I’m on the board because I admire the work of Canada and the generation of passionate African-American leaders like him making a difference in low-income communities.) If I’m watching to make sure Obama keeps any promise (and I’m watching a few) it’s to replicate Canada’s work in urban neighborhoods around the country. That’s King’s beloved community, to me.
In the end, Obama’s March 18 race speech salved most people’s concerns about his ties to Wright. I’ve never heard such a clear, compassionate, intimate portrait of the anxieties of black and white Americans, and the way their fears of one another keep both groups down — since King, probably. When race began to matter in the campaign, Obama channeled King’s optimism about America, and not Wright’s pessimism. That speech played a huge role in making the Wright issue go away — and in making Obama president. Somewhere King was smiling, I have to believe.
When King died, he was groping toward launching, with Marian Wright (later Edelman), a “Poor People’s Campaign,” and he was in Memphis supporting a forlorn garbage workers’ strike. He knew his work would not be complete without attention to multiracial, global poverty and injustice. It has often struck me that among the awful assassinations that changed our history, several took place after the great leader had turned his attention to multiracial organizing — Malcolm X embracing a nonracial version of Islam and praying alongside “blue-eyed devils”; Robert Kennedy trying to finish King’s work and also integrate whites and Latinos into the beloved community; King moving into multiracial organizing on issues of poverty and justice, not just black civil rights. King had just organized a multiracial summit — blacks, whites, Latinos, Asians, American Indians — at the end of 1967 that some of his black allies fought and openly wished would fail.
All of that work is sadly unfinished. A third of black children still live in poverty, the same as when King died. I believe Obama will move King’s agenda forward; I also believe he can’t help disappointing us, in ways that King did not. For me, personally, King has been a political and moral touchstone since my parents worshipped him in my childhood. As an adult, I’ve read about him exhaustively, struggled with all his choices and thus with my own: Did he move too fast in Birmingham in 1963, or does my asking that make me one of the white liberals he scathingly addressed in his letter from jail? Should he have gone to Chicago when his work was unfinished in the South? Why did he embrace the just but divisive (among Democrats, anyway) antiwar movement when the civil rights struggle was stalled? There he disagreed with my other hero of inclusivity, Bayard Rustin. But on all these points, I eventually judged King right.
I realized late in the election season I was approaching Obama the same way: scrutinizing his every move not only for political efficacy but for moral, political and racial justice. It was too big a burden to place on our first black presidential nominee, and now, on our first black president. I also came late to the realization that Obama represents an advance beyond King in terms of our foreordained roles for African-Americans. We want them perfect, we need them to be the country’s conscience, to make us better than we are. It’s been very hard to simply view a black politician as an American leader. That’s the huge social progress represented by Obama’s election as president, something that will take some getting used to, for liberals and conservatives alike.
Clearly Obama’s victory marked the end of a 42-year backlash against civil rights and the Democrats who championed them. From California, sunny Ronald Reagan put together a movement and a message that convinced too many voters that goverment was trying to take their money and their rights and give them to black people — and now we have a black Democratic president who convinced voters that competent government can make things better for everybody. I can’t help wanting Obama to do the right thing on race and poverty, but inevitably we’ll sometimes disagree on what it is. He’s going to disappoint us, he’s going to get things wrong; he’s going to run the country, not redeem us. If there’s racial healing and redemption in that role, that’s good for everybody. But that’s not Obama’s job; it’s our job. He’s got an economy to fix, a country to run, two wars to end, and a whole world waiting for change.
Joan Walsh is Salon's editor at large and the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."More Joan Walsh.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)