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Postman on Politics

Chief political reporter David Postman explores state, regional and national politics.

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May 5, 2008 1:45 PM

From Indiana, a question: Is Obama a worthy successor to MLK?

Posted by David Postman

From Will Mari,

HAUGHVILLE —An impromptu debate swirled in front of Victory Tabernacle Apostolic Church.

In the bright sunshine of the early afternoon, a group of college-aged kids discussed the merits of voting for Sen. Barack Obama, Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. John McCain. The general consensus of the lively crowd was that Obama was the best choice, but Clinton and even McCain had their vocal supporters.

Standing on the sidewalk a few feet away, Olgen Williams, the deputy mayor of neighborhoods in Indianapolis, listened with a smile.

An elder at Victory Tabernacle, Williams, 60, has been a community activist in Haughville for the better part of 20 years. He said he hasn’t seen this much political talk since he was in his teens.

“They don’t grasp the significance or the history of this,” he said. “They talk about it [but] they don’t grasp it.”

A Vietnam veteran, Williams said he fell into drugs, jail and violence after he got out of the U.S. Army. But after being “born again,” his life turned around, and he devoted his energy to the Christamore House, a historic community center that offers a variety of aid programs to low-income residents. A successful career as a community organizer followed.

The self described “very conservative” father of 10 said he doesn’t consider himself particularly partisan, but he does understand and appreciate Obama’s importance to the nation’s African American voters.

“Obama has emerged as a leader and has an inclusive message,” he said. “It’s taken Martin Luther King’s message to the level we wanted to take, to be inclusive of everybody.”

The black community has been searching for a worthy successor to Dr. King, he said.

It’s just about Obama’s ethnicity, either, he said. It’s his “holistic message” that appeals to people.

Neither the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who Williams called a “snake oil doctor,” nor the Rev. Al Sharpton, who “had nothing of substance,” could fulfill the role that Obama is now taking on.

“Obama comes along with a message of inclusiveness, and he got a message that [makes] young people feel like they want to be inclusive,” he said.

“I love that phrase, ‘Obama for America,’” he said. “That’s why I think he’s got people so excited.”

Williams said he thinks the candidates have broadly similar ideas. Even on Iraq, McCain, Clinton and Obama want to disengage from the Middle East, the only difference being the timing.
Obama’s unique background and ideas make him stand out more to the black community, he said.

“We need somebody that will bring people together. We’re on the verge of terrible things happening in the world, and terrible things happening in this country” due to widening economic and ethnic divides.

“I don’t have a dog in this fight,” he said. The former school board member said he really only votes for school board candidates.

Williams said that his role helping oversee the city’s neighborhoods necessitates a certain amount of neutrality on national political issues. He said he works with a Republican mayor and Democrats in the city government.

“I’m the deputy mayor … I help everybody. You need help to do something, I don’t care who you are. I got to serve Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, everybody.”

He said the congressional race in the 7th district, with multiple candidates from both parties vying for the same seat, is more important to him, but even then, he’s trying to be open-minded and will vote for the person and their platform, not their party.

“I know them all … they’re all friends.” For example, he said he’s well acquainted with Rep. Caroline Mays and Rep. AndrĂ© Carson, whose grandmother is from Haughville.

“Whoever it is, I pray for all of them. Whoever gets elected, we’re going to work together to make it successful,” he said.

That practical attitude has motivated Williams throughout his life, and it’s an attitude that he hopes to pass on to his family.

“I don’t even tell my kids who to vote for. You have to look at the issues, the facts, [and] who’s going to most reflect your values,” he said.

“I like to see young people engaged.”

“Hey!” Williams shouted to the crowd of kids, still talking about politics. They turned around and quieted down.

“You can write me in if you want: Williams for president,” he joked.

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