Take a Bow, America
The markets are battered and job losses are skyrocketing, but even in the midst of a national economic crisis, we should not lose sight of the profound significance of this week and what it tells us about the continuing promise of America.
Voters said no to incompetence and divisiveness and elbowed their way past the blight of racism that has been such a barrier to progress for so long. Barack Obama won the state of North Carolina, for crying out loud.
The nation deserves to take a bow. This is not the same place it used to be.
Election night brought a cascade of memories to Taylor Rogers, who is 82 and still lives in Memphis, where he grew up. He remembered a big crowd that jammed a Masonic temple in Memphis on an April night 40 years ago.
"It was filled with people from wall to wall," he said. "And it was storming and raining outside."
The men and women, nearly all of them black, were crushed against one another as they listened, almost as one, to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. give his final speech.
Mr. Rogers was one of the sanitation men whose strike drew Dr. King to Memphis. In the aftermath of the Obama victory on Tuesday night, he recited from memory the climactic phrases from the speech, the part where Dr. King said that God had allowed him to go up to the mountain and that he had looked over and seen the promised land.
"I remember it so well," said Mr. Rogers. "Dr. King told us: ‘I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.'
"You could tell from the words and from the expression on his face that he really felt that something was about to happen."
The next day, of course, Dr. King was killed.
Like so many other older African-Americans that I spoke with during this long, long campaign season, Mr. Rogers said he never dreamed that he would live to see a black person elected president of the United States.
"A black president in the White House?" he said. "In those days, you wouldn't even have thought about going to the White House. Not unless you were a janitor or something."
It can be easy in such a moment of triumph to lose sight of the agony wrought by the unrelieved evil of racism and to forget how crucial a role anti-black racism played in shaping American life since the first slaves were dumped ashore 400 years ago.
Blacks have been holding fast to the promise of America for all that time. Not without anger. Not without rage. But with a fidelity that in the darkest moments - those moments when the flow of blood seemed like it would never stop, when enslaved families were wrenched apart, when entire communities were put to the torch, when the breeze put the stiffened bodies of lynched victims in motion, when even small children were murdered and Dr. King was taken from us - even in those dire moments, African-Americans held fast to the promise of America with a fidelity that defied logic.
The multiracial crowds dancing with unrestrained joy from coast to coast on Tuesday night were proof that the promise of America lives - and that you can't always hang your hat on logic.
You knew something was up when the exit polls revealed early Tuesday evening that Senator Obama had carried the white working-class vote in Indiana, one of the reddest of the red states and a onetime stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan.
I got a call on Friday from David Goodman, whose brother Andrew was one of three civil rights workers slain in the searing racial heat of Mississippi in 1964.
"It's shocking, isn't it?" he said of the election.
"It's wonderful," he said.
Arthur Miller liked to say that the essence of America was its promise. In the darkest of the dark times, in wartime and drastic economic downturns, in the crucible of witch hunts or racial strife, in the traumatic aftermath of a terror attack, that promise lights the way forward.
This week marked a renewal of America's promise. Voters went to the polls and placed a bet on a better future, handing the power to an unlikely candidate who promised to draw people together rather than exploit their differences.
The final tally wasn't close.
We still have two wars to deal with and an economic crisis as severe as any in decades. But we should take a moment to recognize the stunning significance of this moment in history. It's worth a smile, a toast, a sigh, a tear.
America should be proud.
© 2008 New York Times