My twelve year old grandson, Malachi, occasionally complains about being the only black boy in his class at a Catholic school. Throughout Obama's campaign, Mal's shoulders got broader and he held his head higher. On the day after Obama won the Presidency, Mal said to his Mom, "I can be President!" as he strode into his school. No more complaints about being the only black boy in his class!!! Black children the nation over, especially little boys, have had similar reactions. Children of other races begged their parents to vote for Obama. A little girl told me she would give me a nickel if I voted for Obama! How cute, but also how powerful a statement.
Can you believe we have a black President? Are you still pinching yourself, as I am? Are you trying to figure out how it really happened? Has it occurred to you that you might go to sleep and when you awaken, it will all have been a bad joke? Are you collecting newspapers, magazines, buttons, posters and anything Obama not only to commemorate this greatest historical event in our lifetimes but to have some tangible evidence that you can touch, hold and feel? I have had all these reactions, and I still haven't made as much sense of it all as I intend to.
The word historic is often used with abandon but the election of Barack Obama to the U. S. Presidency is indeed the watershed for the century. I attended the March on Washington in 1963, and had no idea at the time that history was being made on such a grand scale. I knew it was very important but we could not have known that it would become a marker for one of the high points in civil rights history. But to elect a black president can't hold a candle to the march.
I am tempted to draw a parallel between Martin Luther King's hopes and dreams and the election of Barack Obama. Forty years later, one can imagine a relay race in which King hands off his list of dreams to Obama's technocracy. Obama's as leader of the Change movement will transform the dreams and hopes into tangible structures, laws, and the like. I wonder if King and Fannie Lou Hamer, Medgar Evers, Ella Baker, Vernon Dahmer and so many others on that roll call of martyrs ever thought it would take forty years of slow and steady progress in the midst of the erosion of opportunities for the poor before we would have a black President. I know I never thought it would occur in my lifetime. My fellow civil rights activists feel the same.
I went to a party on election night. Our hosts put on a great party! We drank, and ate lots and lots of delicious food including cookies with Obama's face on top. There was an air of "cautious optimism" that Obama would win. All of us were exhausted because we worked in the campaign getting out the vote until the polls closed. Some of us watched MSNBC on the fantastic television screen that covered an entire wall, while others watched CNN in another room. We MSNBC folks liked the edgy editorializing of liberal pundits Keith Olberman and Chris Matthews.
There were no surprises in the tally until the returns were reported from the battleground states. We were all on edge. What would happen in North Carolina where my friend Kate had alone to campaign. All of my activist friends as well as my son and niece had spent a lot of time canvassing in rural Virginia. Would we flip Nevada and Indiana? Then the numbers began to roll in. PENN-SYL-VAN-IA! and O-HI-O!!! Did they say we won those states? Lots of crying and rejoicing.
As other red battleground states were flipping into a sea of blue, we began to allow ourselves to believe that, to paraphrase Marvin Gaye, "a BIG change was about to come." Yet, my joy was mitigated by thoughts of the many disappointing events in black history .... when African Americans were on the precipice of winning, only to have our hard-sought victories land in the jaws of defeat. Mayor Tom Bradley. Vice President Al Gore. .... ....
Were things now different? Had the "Bradley effect" landed in that giant human dust heap? Had the nation plunged so deeply into a near-depression that even the hard-core Republicans and those who said they would not vote for an African American were voting for their economic interests? Were the so-called cultural wars irrelevant in this election. Sure looked like it!
At 11:00 p.m. our high anxieties across the world disappeared when the pundits said: Barack Obama is projected to become the next President of the United States.
I will never forget that sentence as long as I live--- a black man had actually become President. Tears flowed amidst the laughter, liquor, congratulations, long distance phone calls to and from our children, family and friends. Caren, our local leader for the Obama campaign called from Grant Park! We tried to find her in the midst of that massive crowd but couldn't. Still, she was having a lot of fun at Ground Zero.
Now that the election, but not the excitement, has passed, I have thought a lot about the positive impact his election will have on the lives of our children and our children's' children. They will embrace hope over fear, courage over dread, and a willingness to sacrifice for the common good. I know that White, Asian and Latino children have been equally inspired to reach for the sky. I heard a TV commentator say today that she stopped at a traffic light in the black section of Washington, DC for two teachers and their very young students. As each child stepped off the curb the teacher at the front of the line said, "The next president, then the next Secretary of State, the next Secretary of the Treasury and so on until they all crossed.
The day after the election, I got a call from Daniel, a favorite student of mine when I was Interim President at Howard University. Daniel didn't say hello. He began singing my favorite Negro spiritual as he had done so many times before:
Lord I done done,
Lord I done done,
Lord I done done,
I done done what you told me to do.