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Obama Is Right: Protest and Love of Country Can Co-Exist

September 26, 2016, 2:49 PM UTC

On Saturday, the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in Washington, DC. The coverage was abundant, but the opening ceremonies really did the spirit of the museum justice. Watch, or re-watch it again, here.

President Obama gave a stirring speech that explained why “protest and love of country” can co-exist, and why facing the truth of a complicated past is the only way forward. It’s a foundational idea that all leaders should embrace. From his speech:

“The best history helps us recognize the mistakes that we’ve made, and the dark corners of the human spirit that we need to guard against. And yes, a clear-eyed view of history can make us uncomfortable. It will shake us out of familiar narratives.

But it is precisely because of that discomfort that we learn, and grow, and harness our collective power to make this nation more perfect. That’s the American story that this museum tells, one of suffering and delight, one of fear, but also of hope, of wandering in the wilderness, and then seeing, out on the horizon, a glimmer of the Promised Land.”

But it can be a tough road. This passage reminded me of a conversation I once saw candidate Obama have with a potential voter who was having trouble reconciling our past with the future. It was October 2007, early enough in the campaign that reporters like me could still get within speaking distance of him. (It would be the last time, however.) The campaign had been criss-crossing South Carolina, to increasingly larger and more enthusiastic crowds. But this exchange is seared in my memory.

We were all milling about after a campaign event, and Obama stopped to speak with a tiny, grandmotherly woman, who had grabbed his arm. She was dressed to the nines, including a purple, go-to-church hat replete with tiny flowers. She was crying. He bent down to hear her tearful confession: As much as she wanted to, she couldn’t vote for him. “They’re going to kill you,” she said. You know where we live. You know how things are. “I just can’t be part of that.” Her face collapsed in anger and grief.

“You know, Michelle and I have talked about this,” Obama began. “We’ve prayed on it. And we know what can happen.” While his campaign handlers swirled about, he talked quietly with her about the country, their families, and what they both believed could make things better. Fear and hope in a South Carolina gym. “I got this,” he said. This was a risk he and Michelle were willing to take, but he needed her to take one too.

“I’m going to be alright,” he said. “I think we’re all going to be alright.”

On Point

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I'm so glad you came into my life. I'm ready for where this journey is gonna take us together. #familyfirst
—Jose Gonzalez