This wasn't politics, at least not politics as usual.

Instead, it was a personal, candid, searing look at race and racism, and a call from Sen. Barack Obama for the entire country to face a legacy "stained by this nation's original sin of slavery."

Many who listened to Obama's speech yesterday at the National Constitution Center wondered how he would finesse the remarks of his friend and minister, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.

More than a few analysts thought he might take the easy way out by denouncing Wright and his words about endemic white racism in America and simply moving on.

But Obama did something unexpected in politics, according to academics, religious and civil rights leaders across Philadelphia: He spoke honestly about race.

He did not diminish the legitimate concerns of black Americans, or pretend there is not bigotry from all concerned, including his own grandmother.

Indeed, numerous members of the audience said they found his speech a stunning attempt to take the "race issue" away from sound bites into a deeper exploration of this country's unfinished business of creating a more perfect society.

Scholars and religious leaders - from the ivory towers of academe to black congregations in Philadelphia and white synagogues on the Main Line - called the speech one of the best by an African American orator.

Teenagers in the audience at the Constitution Center were just as mesmerized by Obama's message as were older civil rights activists.

"He represents what America is," said Katie Robinson, 16, a high school student from Minnesota who listened to the speech with a friend from Mount Airy.

Bobby McFerrin, the musician who lives in Mount Airy, heard the speech with his wife and daughter. He said, "He's trying to get us to look at the whole picture instead of just sound bites."

U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D., Phila.) called Obama's remarks "the most important speech on the question of race and the future of this country since Dr. King's 'I Have a Dream' speech."

Fattah said he thought the speech would resonate for years. "I think this speech 20, 30 or 40 years from now will be used to teach very important lessons about race and how to talk about this subject matter in a way that can bring people together rather than tear people apart," he said.

Rabbi George Stern, executive director of the Neighborhood Interfaith Movement, a coalition of 55 Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Unitarian congregations, said he thought the speech "undoubtedly will go down as one of the best" in political history.

"He provided a nuanced approach to a complicated issue," Stern said. "I think that he got it."

Though some criticize Obama for not disowning Wright, Stern said, "People need to stop and think: If he had completely repudiated Rev. Wright, no one would have believed him. They would have said he was pandering."

Obama spoke about how his personal history made him suited to steer a much-needed and much-avoided national dialogue on race. He repeated his now-familiar narrative:

How his father was a black man from Africa and his mother a white woman from Kansas.

How his wife is an African American "who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave owners."

And how his extended family represents "every race and every hue."

Obama said his unconventional background had "seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts - that out of many, we are truly one."

Of Wright, Obama said he expressed "a profoundly distorted view of this country." Recently, for example, Wright said Obama's opponent for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Rodham Clinton, could never understand racism because American is "a country and a culture controlled by rich white people."

Obama described Wright as a product of his generation, a black man who had to confront institutionalized segregation in the 1950s and '60s.

And he said he could no more disown Wright than he could his white grandmother - "a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe."

For many, that revelation was particularly poignant.

Camille Z. Charles, faculty associate director at the Center for African Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, said Obama was able to draw on his own life to make his points.

"I thought he drew on his experience really well and in a way that showed him to be truly American," Charles said. "He has heard it from both sides of his own family."

"He is, in a sense, becoming for his audience the quintessential American," added Molefi Kete Asante, a professor in Temple University's Department of African American Studies.

"Most people felt, and I felt, he would not take this issue on frontally, and he did. It was a remarkable demonstration of courage," Asante said.

Not everyone agreed. Some expected Obama to place more distance between himself and Wright, who has said in sermons now being watched endlessly on YouTube that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were partly the result of America's support for "state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans."

Rabbi Neil Cooper of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood said in an e-mail: "I can agree with Sen. Obama that to suggest that Rev. Wright is simply a racist would be an oversimplification. But to deny that Rev. Wright's racist remarks are acceptable in any context is to complicate an issue which is fairly simple.

"If the America which Sen. Obama envisions is one in which we are compelled to embrace and remain affiliated with racists," Cooper said, "that is not a vision which I can share."

Many in the audience yesterday were struck that Obama did not gloss over the anger that festers among blacks and whites.

Allison Dorsey, an associate professor of history at Swarthmore College, said she was heartened that Obama said it was possible to face the question of race while dealing with all of the nation's other pressing needs, including mounting deficits, crumbling schools and international terrorism.

"I am just overwhelmed by so much we still have to do around race," Dorsey said. "And to have this calm, amazingly brave, eloquent call, and say we can talk about things racial and do the other heavy lifting . . . I thought was just very powerful."

The Rev. Ted Loder, a retired pastor at the First United Methodist Church of Germantown who marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s, said he read a transcript of the speech "with tears in my eyes."

He called Obama "eloquent, honest and courageous" for framing racism as part of our legacy as Americans.

"His words did not seem calculating," Loder said. "He was not pandering. What he gave was a statement that called us to be accountable for each other and move forward to build a civil society. That kind of vision and scope is what we need in this country."

Nina Ahmad and Ahsan Nasratullah, immigrants from Bangladesh, took their daughter Joya to hear the speech.

"He's set the narrative," said Ahmad, a molecular geneticist. "He's saying, 'Let's talk about things that matter to us.' It's not just him speaking. He's making all of us think and reflect."

Joya, 15, a ninth-grade student at William Penn Charter School, said that instead of making race "a divisive issue, he made it decisive."

"I love how he ended it by saying, 'This is where the perfection of our legacy begins.' "

Rabbi Michael Bernstein of Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley, who was in the audience, said, "He succeeded in changing the conversation from who did what to how can we have a real conversation about issues that persist."

Obama, he said, is saying it is time "to have an impact on the unfinished business of what America can be."