—Tennessee Williams in “A Streetcar Named Desire”
Living in Michigan four decades ago, I helped a young Democratic congressman from my district, John Conyers, get re-elected.
Conyers stood for what was missing in U.S. politics: true progressivism, not the lukewarm politics of most Democrats then as now. So I held open houses at which he appeared and drove him to campaign stops.
After he won, I said to him: “John, why don’t you run next for the Senate?”
He smiled indulgently at my naïveté and replied: “You forget that I am black.”
“So what?” I said. “You’re good.”
Little did I know.
That hoary taboo has been shattered forever by the historic and transformational election of Barack Obama as president. The country is finally judging White House candidates on their ability and not the color of their skin.
John McCain represented the past, Obama the future. The Bush adminstration produced countless anguished nights of the soul. McCain would have been more of the same agony.
The reality today is that the Republican Party is racist, reactionary and white in a multidimensional society. As Paul Krugman, New York Times columnist, puts it: “The GOP has become the party of intolerance.”
Much of the world was euphoric and much of America rejoiced over the Obama triumph. But imagine the special joy of veterans of the trenches of Civil Rights battles.
People like Jesse Jackson. Jackson, attending an Obama victory party in Chicago’s Grant Park, was shown on TV with tears streaming from his eyes.
Indeed, many elderly blacks thought that they would never live to see such an incredible day. They lived in the dread days of Jim Crow, days in the ’60s with attacks by police dogs and cannonades by fire hoses.
Eugene Robinson, black columnist for the Washington Post, wrote: “I remember a time of separate and unequal schools, restrooms and water fountains, a time when black people were officially second-class citizens.”
Apartheid reigned so supreme that some Southern courthouses used two oath-taking Bibles, one for whites and one for blacks.
States in the South nullified and defied the 15th Amendment with fraudulent grandfather clauses and absurd literacy tests. The Supreme Court, so often so conservative throughout its history, ratified these unconstitutional laws.
Happily, it has all changed. A 109-year-old black woman from Texas, whose father was a slave, today votes freely.
Robinson also reminded us of another truth: “At the hour of its birth the nation was stained by the Original Sin of slavery.”
People like me have been supporting black rights, empathizing with blacks, for five decades. But I am white. I can never know viscerally what it is to be black in America.
I can never truly comprehend the frequent affronts to blacks. Like the insult hurled at black writer Richard Wright. Crossing the border into Texas carrying a portable typewriter, he was asked by a customs official: “Hey, boy, why are you carrying that typewriter?”
Of all the moving commentary on the Obama success, one of the most affecting was written by Bob Sanders, Fort Worth-Star Telegram columnist.
Sanders was not just voting for Obama. He said he “was voting for Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass; for Abraham Lincoln and Sojourner Truth; for W.E.B. and Booker T; for Franklin and Eleanor; for John and Bobby; for Martin and Medgar; and for César and Lyndon.”
And he said he was voting for Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, murdered in Mississippi for registering black voters in 1964.
The plea of writer Langston Hughes is ever so slowly coming true: “O, let America be America again, the land that never has been yet — and yet must be. The land where every man is free.”
And the pledge of Martin Luther King, Jr. has been redeemed. He had climbed the mountain top and seen that blacks would “get to the promised land.”
Obama carries an immense burden of hope into the presidency. But he also brings fine attributes. He is forceful, intelligent, compassionate and charismatic.
Those qualities should make him an excellent president.
Hope, to many cynics, was just a campaign slogan. But the nation desperately needs hope after the daily outrages and agonizing eight years of Bush.
The German poet Schiller captured that hope in “Ode to Joy”:
“Joy, thou spark from Heav’n immortal, / Daughter of Elysium! / Drunk with fire, toward Heaven advancing…/ All men become brothers / Where thy happy wingbeats are.”
The magnificent, ever-moving choral movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony seizes that theme: “Alle Menschen werden Brüder.” (All men become brothers.)
Hopelessly idealistic, true, yet full of the hope that Obama inspires.
Jake Highton teaches journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno.