Roland Burris may well make it into the Senate, despite the dead weight of Illinois corruption. If so he will owe a great deal to Patrick Fitzgerald for arresting Rod Blagojevich and forcing him to jettison candidates 1-5; he'll owe Bobby Rush for being willing to shamelessly race bait and contort history on his behalf. And of course he'll owe Blago for his preternatural ability to fuse sleaziness and cluelessness into one single body.
But his biggest debt will be to Adam Clayton Powell. The LA Times noted this weekend that the previous instance in which the House of Representatives sought to keep Powell from his seat. There is a curious subtheme of racism in America. We commonly think of "racial equality" in terms of removing the barriers that prevent African Americans from reaching the highest echelons of their chosen fields. If you look at the world from that angle its easy to see why people might believe that the election of Barack Obama represents the beginning of a postracial America. If the presidency is open to Obama, , then every other talented black person in the country has a reasonable expectation for success.
But in a real sense, racial equality is the right for black people to be just as mediocre or downright sorry as their white counterparts without suffering disproportionate consequences. When a black criminal sees the same odds of incarceration (and future employment) as a white one, we'll be getting somewhere.
(The election of a briliant lawyer like Obama is one standard of progress; the election of a black mediocrity, an African American version of George W. Bush would be the real Free At Last moment.)
Adam Clayton Powell understood that better and earlier than most. Powell, who was the first black Congressman from New York, bent House ethics considerations into origami and when questioned on his behavior, his stock answer was that he would abide by the standard of every other white Rep.
In 1967 the House attempted to refuse Powell his seat for alleged misallocation of travel funds (more specifically, using plane tickets purchased in staffers names to camouflage his own junkets). It was an unprecendented move in a body that had seen corruption far worse than what Powell was accused of. Powell sued Congress -- another first -- and the Supreme Court ruled that Congress did not have the authority to prevent him from being seated.
Burris lawyer's have no doubt revisited that decision. Should he gain the position, it will mark an achievement for black America: we will be one step closer to the equality of mediocrity that is truthfully a punishment of its own sort.