During the course of our conversation on race, comfort levels and the path that Barack Obama will be taking toward November, I was struck by how unlikely that incredible conversation would have been just a few years back. Before I went to sleep Friday night, I re-watched the MLK "I Have A Dream" speech (YouTube at left), and sat there marveling on how far we have come.
But reading this piece from Gene Robinson, I also realize in the full light of day, how much further we have to go:
…A young, black, first-term senator — a man whose father was from Kenya, whose mother was from Kansas and whose name sounds as if it might have come from the roster of Guantanamo detainees — has won a marathon of primaries and caucuses to become the presumptive presidential nominee of the Democratic Party. To reach this point, he had to do more than outduel the party’s most powerful and resourceful political machine. He also had to defy, and ultimately defeat, 389 years of history.
It was in 1619 that the first Africans were brought in chains to these shores, landing in Jamestown. That first shipment of "servants" did not include any of Obama’s ancestors; it’s impossible to say whether some distant progenitor of his wife, Michelle, might have been present at that moment of original sin. Ever since — through the War of Independence, the abolitionist movement, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the great migration to Northern cities and the civil rights struggle — race has been one of the great themes running through our nation’s history.
I’m old enough to remember when Americans with skin the color of mine and Obama’s had to fight — and die — for the right to participate as equals in the life of the nation we helped build. Watching Obama give his speech Tuesday night marking the end of the primary season and the beginning of the general election campaign, I thought back to a time when brave men and women, both black and white, put their lives on the line to ensure that African Americans had the right to vote, let alone run for office — a time when Democrats in my home state of South Carolina were Dixiecrats, and when the notion that the Democratic Party would someday nominate a black man for president was utterly unimaginable.
Tiresome, isn’t it? All this recounting of unpleasant history, I mean. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all just move on? Bear with me, though, because this is how we get to the point where, as Obama’s young supporters like to chant, "race doesn’t matter." No one will be happier than I when we reach that promised land, and we’ve come so far that at times we can see it, just over the next hill. But we aren’t there yet.
This is a passage from an e-mail I received in April from an Obama volunteer in Pennsylvania: "We’ve been called ‘N-lovers,’ Obama’s been called the ‘Anti-Christ,’ our signs have been burned in the streets during a parade, our volunteers have been harassed physically, or with racial slurs — it’s been unreal."
Yet the amazing thing isn’t that there were instances of overt, old-style racism during this campaign, it’s that there were so few. The amazing thing is that so many Americans have been willing to accept — or, indeed, reject — Obama based on his qualifications and his ideas, not on his race. I’ll never forget visiting Iowa in December and witnessing all-white crowds file into high school gymnasiums to take the measure of a black man — and, ultimately, decide that he was someone who expressed their hopes and dreams….
What Barack Obama and his campaign staff have achieved this primary season has been nothing short of amazing, especially their incredible work with voter registration and energizing the youth vote like no other campaign I have ever seen. But we still have an enormous amount of work to do for him to win in November.
At the moment, though, I wanted to simply pause and recall the shadows of history — and what had to be overcome to get here. We had two candidates — one woman and one African-American man (YouTubes) — standing toe to toe, running for their party’s nomination to the presidency of the United States. As equals. Think about the fact that it is no longer a question (YouTube) that could happen (YouTube)– someday — because it already has.
Watch the YouTube of Dr. King, and soak in the history for a moment. Think about the fact that Barack Obama, a man of mixed race heritage, has given voice to some profound hopes and dreams of a whole lot of Americans. Regardless of their gender or color or background. And think, for a moment, how unlikely that would have been just a few years back. (YouTube)