We are inheritors of this momentous victory, but it was not ours. The laurels properly belong to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and all of the other martyrs who died for civil rights. And to millions more before them who struggled across centuries and fell short of winning their freedom. And to those rare politicians like Lyndon B. Johnson, who stood up bravely in a decisive time, knowing how much it would cost his political party for years to come. We owe all of them for this moment.
Whatever happens next, Barack Obama has already changed this nation profoundly. Like King before him, the man is a great and brave teacher. Obama developed out of his life experiences a different understanding of the country, and he had the courage to run for president by offering this vision. For many Americans, it seemed too much to believe, yet he turned out to be right about us. Against all odds, he persuaded a majority of Americans to believe in their own better natures and, by electing him, the people helped make it true. There is mysterious music in democracy when people decide to believe in themselves.
Waiting for the results, we all felt nagging tension, even when we were fairly sure of the outcome. I heard from a newspaper friend, a wise old reporter who never gave in to Washington cynicism. “This election eve night,” he wrote, “I feel myself tingling about the prospect of a nation which used to lynch blacks during my lifetime electing a black man president. I so hope it happens, believe it would electrify the world. I think he is the bravest man in the world, perhaps the most foolish one as well…. I worry about him like a Jewish mama.”
We heard from another family friend, an African-American woman who teaches law in North Carolina. She reported weeping involuntarily when she saw Obama’s picture. Did she know why? She said she saw her adolescent son’s face in Obama’s. Great moments in history give emotional definition to our lives and we carry those feelings forward with us, our own private meaning of events.
In this way, Obama redefined the country for us, but our responses involved generational differences. For younger people, white and black, his vision seemed entirely straightforward. It is the country they already know, and they expressed great enthusiasm. Finally, they said, a politician who recognizes the racial differences that are part of their lives and no big deal. For young blacks and other minorities, Obama’s place at the pinnacle of official power lifts a coarse cloak that has blanketed their lives and dreams–the stultifying burden of being judged, whether they succeed or fail, on the basis of their race.
For others of us at an advanced age, Obama’s success is more shocking. We can see it as a monumental rebuke to tragic history–the ultimate defeat of “white supremacy.” That vile phrase was embedded in American society from the outset and still in common usage when some of us were young. Now it is officially obsolete. Racism will not disappear entirely, but the Republican “Southern strategy” that marketed racism has been smashed. Americans will now be able to see themselves differently, North and South, white and black. The changes will spread through American life in ways we cannot yet fully imagine. Let us congratulate ourselves on being alive at such a promising moment.