I looked around as the television screen flashed “Obama projected winner of the presidency.” Some stood, in shock, unable to even applaud. Others hooted, high-fived, cheered and hugged, congratulating each other on what was obviously a communal victory. But it was the third response that was most captivating. They melted–some to the floor, some against the wall, some into another person’s arms. They sobbed with the force of centuries, unleashing tears of joy they never thought they’d get the chance to shed.
It couldn’t be real, could it? We couldn’t have overcome generations of prejudice and a legacy of slavery to elect a black American to the presidency, could we? There was a woman standing near me who, with pleading eyes, kept begging for reassurance. “It’s real, right? He won, right? They can’t take it away, right?”
No one can take it away. This moment was centuries in the making and the net result of three different movements. It cannot be taken away because it was not given. It was earned.
Youth turned out in droves. The 18-24-year-olds routinely dismissed as apathetic proved their worth and weight this election. They broke for Obama 66 percent to 32 percent, creating a thirty-four-point gap that contributed significantly to his victory. This sort of preferential gap by age was unprecedented. The average gap from 1976 to 2004 was less than two points, with young people generally echoing the division of older demographics. Not this time. Young people disproportionately knocked on doors, worked phone banks, and posted Facebook messages–rallying for the first candidate of their lifetimes who actually spoke to them. They join the youth who came before them, in the Vietnam War protests and the civil rights era, to agitate for social progress. It’s a movement that deserves partial credit for the tremendous victory we celebrate.
The human rights movement, spanning countries, centuries, issues and injustices, also holds the glory. More than a victory for black men, it is also a stride forward for all marginalized individuals. It reaffirms that every human, regardless of the superficial differences that divide us, is worthy of honor. It heralds the beginning of an era when every human is judged of equal moral weight–a cornerstone of the human rights movement. To boil the significance down to merely a racial issue minimizes the magnitude of this victory.
Reaffirming our collective humanity, the Obama victory is an offspring of the Civil Rights movement. Without the 14th and 15th Amendments, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, without Selma and the Freedom Riders, without Dr. King and the NAACP, the results of November 4 would not have been possible.
The intertwined weight of the civil rights and human rights movements created the fertile soil for a black man to rise to the highest office in our nation. The confluence of these movements–youth, civil and human rights–rendered a promise fulfilled and the election of Barack Obama. His words give testament to this proof. In his victory speech he said, “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”
But we cannot stop here. This victory is momentous but ethereal. Progress is eroded when not pushed forward, taken to the next level. There are still inequalities that need to be challenged: issues such as racial profiling, where in some areas African-Americans are still likely to be stopped by authorities based on the color of their skin. Also, sentencing disparities, where a higher percentage of blacks are likely to be convicted of drug-related crimes. In some regions high school dropout rates affect 50 percent of black youth, and the affordability of college for blacks seems to stretch further and further beyond reach. The increasing unemployment rate is consistently and dependably twice as high in the African-American community. It is the job of the NAACP and the countless forces from all three movements to make this transformative movement lasting.
Our forefathers’ promise that “all men are created equal” can now be put to the test.