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 (even the Constitution) 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.