Barack Obama invoked Rev. Martin Luther King's "fierce urgency of now" as he made his first visit as a presidential candidate to America's most famous black neighborhood, Harlem, venturing within sight of Bill Clinton's office to make his debut.
"I want to stand up for those who still hunger for opportunity, who still thirst for justice," Obama said Thursday night. "I don't want to wake up and find out four years from now that we missed this opportunity.... We cannot wait." That last quote is a reference to King's letter from the Birmingham Jail.
Most of the local African-American political leadership, led by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Charles Rangel, has set aside the bond of shared race to line up behind New York's favorite daughter, Sen. Hillary Clinton.
But long lines of overwhelmingly black supporters waited outside for a $50-a-seat fundraiser at the Apollo Theater, a landmark cultural institution that was a focal point of the flowering of African-American cultural known as the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Gospel Choir sang the gospel standard "Oh Happy Day" while waiting for the candidate.
"How does it feel to be part of history," declared African-American scholar Cornel West, rousing the crowd to its feet.
"You'd be real embarrassed if he won and we wasn't down," said comedian Chris Rock, introducing Obama. "I had that white lady. What was I thinking? What was I thinking?"
Obama also spoke about the Jena Six case of black teens charged in a racially tinged incident in Louisana.
"I'm tired of reading about Jena," he said. "I'm tired of reading about nooses and I'm tired of hearing about a Justice Department that doesn't understand justice."
Obama used the visit to pay homage to Rev. Al Sharpton, a major Harlem powerbroker and one of the few prominent local leaders who has not yet chosen a side in the presidential race, though he said he will do "very shortly."
The two met for a dinner of corn bread, coconut shrimp and fried chicken wings at Sylvia's, a renowned soul food restaurant.
Speaking later with reporters, Sharpton said, "Tonight he came to Harlem, and he came with a message that Harlem likes, wants someone to discuss at a presidential level, that is hate crimes."