Our election of Barack Obama to be President of the United States of America has been filling me with overwhelming emotions. As it has been doing for so many people.
It has been hard to put any of this into words. For me it begins with my being a child of the Civil Rights Movement. As many readers of this blog know, in the early 1960s, my father worked for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as Special Assistant to Martin Luther King, Jr. He worked in the SCLC NY office and fought on the front lines of the civil rights battle in Birmingham, AL. One of the youth leaders of the Birmingham movement, the late William Douthard (aka Meatball), lived with us when he first moved to Albany, NY in 1978.
I started this blog to write about my father's history in the Movement and in the process I have had the privilege of getting involved with the broader community of Civil Rights Movement veterans. I've made new friends and joined hands with them in the continuing struggle for racial justice in America.
It is incredibly potent to see images of a Black man elected to be President---in a historic, landslide victory, no less. To see that, and to see America's embrace of the Obama family, and to see Michelle and Barack's two little Black girls who are going to grow up in the White House---is to see barriers broken that I hoped but did not expect to see broken in my lifetime.
This is not the ultimate fulfillment of the struggle imparted to me by my father and his comrades---but it is a watershed moment. America still has a long way to go. And we don't know what kind of president Obama will turn out to be; he may well end up being a centrist Democrat in the tradition of Bill Clinton. There are also indications that his administration will promote unprecedented changes in American government and society. It is likely that the Obama administration will be a mix of these things. But Obama's candidacy and election are more than these emotions and are more than the sum his policies and accomplishments of his administration.
One of the Civil Rights Movement veterans I've gotten to know is Joyce Ladner. Joyce grew up in Palmers Crossing, Hattiesburg, MS. She and her sister Dorie became leaders in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and were involved in much of the civil rights struggle in Mississippi. Joyce has gone on to be a prominent sociologist, a pioneer in Black women's studies, a president of Howard University, a Clinton appointee to the District of Columbia Financial Control Board and a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.
In January, Joyce launched her Ladner Report blog to support Barack Obama in the midst of the contentious and often ugly Democratic primary race. Before the election results were known on Tuesday night, she wrote:
I am posting this piece before the election results are in, so I don't know if Senator Barack Obama will become President Obama. I going out to an election returns party tonight. But the race has already been won. I don't know if the numbers will allow us to call him "President Obama" but what I do know is this: we have turned this country around. It can not, it will not shift back to the greed, mean spiritedness, selfishness, and all the other negative adjectives I could call it.
I was reminded of a passage written by Franz Fanon:
Each generation must define its mission,
Fulfill it, or betray it.
I think Fanon's words have a lot of relevance today because older generations worked in this campaign to restore us to our better selves, while the young stepped forth to define their missions. In time, they, too, will step up and figure out how to carry them out. They will have a great transformational leader in a President Obama.
With this in mind, I told a fellow volunteer at the Obama campaign office today that the laws of the universe helped to shift us away from the horrors that led people to rise up and clamor and work for CHANGE. Obama was a conduit for the change we citizens must have. He understands that too because he keeps telling us that the election is not about him but it's about US.
I spent some time yesterday and today waving my Obama sign at major intersections in this beautiful Florida city that is so deeply Republican. I saw many McCain-Palin supporters taking their last breaths in their old identities. Several very old men gave me the finger sign, which shocked me because they looked like it was hard for them to raise their arms. Infirm. Old. Set in 19th century ideas, but still nasty, hostile, and in some cases racist. It's not enough to say that these people are driven entirely by self interest. It goes deeper than that. It is about the redefinition of who we are as a nation. It taps into the better part of our selves for the negative experiences to which we have been subjected are destroying our inner spirits....
Let's hope this two year experience many of us have had with this campaign will leave us all with a renewal of energy and optimism, that will fuel our desire to sacrifice for the changes the society needs. I have not had experiences similar to those in this campaign since I was a college student civil rights activist. I hope we who had similar experiences in the past can now feel content to bequeath to the younger generations that same sense of struggle and morality, optimism and hope, hard work and sacrifice. They are up to the task and we should be more than ready to move to the side and urge them to lead.
May God protect Senator Obama and may he guide and protect us as well, as we work for higher purposes and goals that demand that we all step outside ourselves to work for the greater good.
On Wednesday morning, I wrote an email to my friend John Due.
John was born in Indiana, where he attended Indiana University. There, in 1957, three years before the Southern sit-in movement, he helped organize a testing campaign of segregated off-campus housing, restaurants and barber shops. After several more years of activity in the NAACP and union organizing, John went to Florida A&M in Tallahassee to attend law school and get in involved in the Civil Rights Movement there. John worked for the Southern Regional Council in Atlanta, which sent him to Mississippi in 1964, where he conducted a dangerous investigation of violent reprisals against Black citizens and their SNCC and CORE workers seeking the right to vote in Southwest Mississippi---the same area of Mississippi my current investigations of civil rights era racial violence focus on. John has been active in practically every civil rights organization one could name. More recently he was a leader of the successful campaign for Miami-Dade County to adopt the most comprehensive living wage ordinance in the country. John's wife, Patricia Stephens Due, a civil rights leader in her own right in the Tallahassee movement and beyond, co-authored with one of their daughters, Tananarive Due, the book Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights.
My subject line to John was "Congratulations to us all."
I'm thinking of you and your family today. I just tried to call your home to say congratulations and that the news that we have elected Barack Obama as President of the United States is more meaningful because I know you.
John replied in a vein similar to Joyce's blog post:
Like John Lewis---as Obama has said---my wife, myself, your father and other unsung heroes are and were the Moses Generation.
Obama said he was of the Joshua Generation, like you are.
And crossing the Red Sea that was made easy by the Lord is nothing compared to the River Jordan that you and your children will have to do because the Jordan is still not crossed yet. You will soon find out the difference between McCain saying "I," and Obama saying "You."
So I accept your congratulations as a matter of recognition of helping to put you and your generation in place. "To Come This Far." Now it is your turn. So I agree---"Congratulations to us all."
Neither Joyce nor John have illusions that Obama is the silver bullet for our nation's woes. They are ardent supporters of Obama, who see him and his candicy as having invigorated my generation and American politics with the capacity to now start moving ahead to the next stages of evolution. It will be no less of a struggle. But there is hope now that we can meet it. Yes we can.