On Aug. 28, 45 years from the day of the Rev. Martin Luther King's historic speech at the March on Washington, Barack Obama will receive the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party in Denver.
Obama's impending victory reflects not simply the triumph of hope or the desire for change. It reveals an America that keeps growing, keeps renewing itself, keeps getting better.
Obama has special gifts. He has run a remarkable campaign against the odds. But he has stood on the shoulders of giants. This has been a long campaign, but the journey to this day has been far longer.
King's speech in 1963 was but one step in an ongoing movement. After the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education ruled that segregation was illegal, people remained skeptical that anything would change. But many started to move.
Then on Aug. 28, 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was murdered for the "crime" of whistling at the white wife of a shopkeeper in Money, Miss. Till, raised in Chicago, was spending the summer with his uncle. His murderers gouged out his eyes, shot him in the head, used barbed wire to tie a cotton gin around his neck and threw him into the Tallahatchie River. Outraged, his mother, Mamie Till, brought his remains back to Chicago and demanded a funeral with an open casket. It was reported that 50,000 people viewed the body. Jet magazine sold record numbers of magazines. The protest of Mamie Till electrified African Americans, even as the murderers were acquitted by a white jury in Mississippi.
Three months later, Rosa Parks refused to get up from that seat on the bus. When I asked her how she dared face the threats that would follow, she said she was thinking about Emmett Till. She had seen a picture of his body and was having trouble sleeping from the pain. She decided it was time to act. King, a young minister, came to her aid. The Montgomery bus boycott moved the civil rights movement to the nation's attention.
On Aug. 28, 1963, when King delivered his dream, the South was still segregated. Neither the Civil Rights Bill nor the Voting Rights Act had passed. The March on Washington took place at a time of struggle, of beatings and arrests, of innocents sacrificed and heroes struck down. But King chose to look beyond the agony of the moment to envision a new day, the hope of what might be.
Now, 45 years later, Obama's victory is a testament not simply to his singular skills, but to the struggle and the sacrifice over many decades of many ordinary heroes, too often forgotten.
America is not a perfect nation. Race still divides us. The gulf between rich and poor grows wider. We squander our wealth in misbegotten wars and misplaced priorities.
But America's glory is not that it is perfect, but that it continues to grow. This takes courageous leaders and independent struggle, leadership not from the top down, but from the bottom up. King galvanized a nation, but his movement depended on the courage and sacrifice of unsung American citizens, white and black, deciding to stand up against great odds, to remain disciplined in the face of brutal reaction, to keep on keeping on even when the dark seemed to shut out the light.
We've had a hotly contested primary. We're headed to what will be a fierce general election, already featuring ugly efforts to divide us. But let us not forget to appreciate just how far we have come. And how many sacrificed to help us get here.
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