America’s Mountaintop Moment
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. 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. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”~ Martin Luther King Jr., “I’ve Been To the Mountain Top”
“Its been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.”~ Barack Obama, Victory Speech, November 5, 2009
Yesterday ended, really ended, an election more haunted by history than perhaps any other in this nation’s history, and particularly haunted by a man whose dream of equality and justice gave voice to the hopes of many in his generation, and literally gave hope to so many in mine. So, it seems appropriate that — bookending his campaign — Barack Obama gave his acceptance speech for the Democratic party’s nomination on the 45th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, and took the oath of office and give his inaugural address one day after the holiday acknowledging what would have been King’s 80th birthday.
There is much, so much to celebrate in this moment. And much sobering reality we must remember.
Change, Obama said in his victory speech, has come to America. But it can also be argued that change has not so much come to America as America has finally come to change, or at least taken a real step in that direction. There’s a difference.
Before the election there were several articles on the surviving children of former slaves – people whose lives span a century or more, from emancipation to inauguration – people like 114-year-old Gertrude Baines, the world’s oldest person of African decent and daughter of former slaves, who cast her vote for Obama in November; people like 109-year-old Amanda Jones, whose father was born into slavery; people like 106-year-old Ann Nixon Cooper, whom Obama referenced in his victory speech, who knew Martin Luther King, and who cast her vote for Obama; people like 100-year-old Lillian Allen, who can remember when few blacks and no women could vote; and people like 57-year-old Rev. Steve Daniels and 55-year-old Rosa Daniels, who will take with them to D.C. memories of making signs for civil rights marches and dodging firecrackers from Klansmen. It had to be an indescribable moment for people like 86-year-old campaign volunteer Charles Alexander.
On Sunday, October 26, eight days before Election Day, Sen. Barack Obama held a rally with over 100,000 people in downtown Denver, Colorado–the capital of a state that has voted for a Republican in nine out of the last ten presidential elections. One of those people in the crowd that day was 86-year old Charles Alexander, a Boulder resident that has lived a remarkable life, combated a variety of hardships and out of it all personified a true American story, with a life dedicated to family and service.
Born in East Texas, Charles lived through the torrid history of the early 1900’s–in the South–and went on to fight for his country in World War II and The Korean War. He returned injured, volunteered on political campaigns for the last forty years and continued an eventful life with his wife and children. He was married to her for 69 years before she passed away just a matter of weeks before these images were taken.
Charles entered the volunteer raffle contest to meet Barack Obama at the Boulder field office where he works–and won. He was able to shake hands, engage and even show off a picture of his wife with the man who might very well be the first black president of The United States. Word spread to the Barack Obama official website, which created a video about him, netting over 200,000 in a little less than a day. His story has been covered on The Daily Kos, The Huffington Post and several other blogs.
Charles, a man who cast his first ballot for FDR, just voted early for Barack Obama.
In my short life — compared to theirs — my eyes have seen only a fraction of what has passed before their eyes. And now, as this moment passed before all of our eyes, mine filled with tears just as I’m sure theirs did. It started for me, as I sat watching alone, the moment the camera panned briefly across the faces of Martin Luther King Jr.’s children, and flowed right along as I watched Barack and Michele Obama’s daughters make their way down the capitol steps, accompanied by their grandmother, and heard them announced.
They flowed as Michelle Obama walked down the capitol steps, accompanied by Mrs. Biden, and carrying with her a red box that probably held the Lincoln bible, to be used in her husband’s swearing in. Michelle Obama, a descendent of slaves, would hold the bible used by president Lincoln — signer of the emancipation proclamation — as her husband was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States, and the nation’s first African American president.
It is impossible to forget all that has led up to this moment, even as it was written across the faces of so many — people like by Jesse Jackson, as he listened to the election results announed — who worked for and ultimately witnessed a moment few dreamed of living to see.
And it is perilously easy to forget how much remains before us. As Diane Feinstein said in her speech, this was the moment that the dream declared so loudly at the Lincoln Memorial 45 years ago finally reached the walls of the White House.
Forty-five years for the dream — a simple dream, really — to travel the short distance, 1.3 miles, from the Lincoln Memorial to the White House. How long before that dream reaches the the rest of the country?
For as evident as it is that a dream has, today, been realized , it is just as evident that the same dream has yet to be realized in many ways and many places across this country. Today, America became a different country. It is not the same country that Gertrude Baines, Amanda Jones, Ann Nixon Cooper, Lillian Allen, Rev. Steve and Rosa Daniels, Charles Alexander, Jesse Jackson, and so many others, including my own mother and father, knew and worked in so many ways to change.
Yet, it is also the same America in many ways, unchanged even from the country it was during the two years of the presidential campaign.
Yes, America changed today. But it is the same America where the election of Barack Obama provoked a rise in hate crimes.
The America that has made Barack Obama its president is the same America where the election of Barack Obama enraged white supremacists, inspired more threats against him than any other president, and yet inspired even in them hope for a backlash in their favor.
It is the same America where a Klan initiation murder happened just three days after Obama’s election.
It is an America where a family of Obama supporters found a cross was burned on their front lawn after the election.
It is an America where Homeland security employee was disciplined for a halloween costume consisting of dreadlocks, a striped prison uniform, and blackface.
It is an America where nooses have made a reappearance in the last couple of years. Nooses appeared in a tree at a high school in Jena, LA — called “the White Tree” because only white students traditionally sat under it — after black students asked to sit under it, sparking violence between black and white students, and criminal charges against black students that drew more than 10,000 people to Jena, to protest what they felt were unjust sentences. Following the Jena incident, nooses were found hanging at North Carolina school, An African American employee found a noose hanging at the the main U.S. Secret Service training facility, outside of Washington, DC. Four nooses were found in a Michigan university classroom.
It is an America where, at a school for the deaf, a black student was held against his will as “KKK” and swastikas were drawn on him with magic markers.
It is an America where four teenagers beat and attempted to drown a black college student, after calling him “nigger” earlier.
It is an America where a Latino teenage boy was beaten and tortured for five hours by four white teen boys. He was knocked unconscious, dragged outside, stripped, kicked with steel-toed boots, burned with cigarettes, and brutally sodomized with a plastic patio umbrella pole that was kicked several inches into his rectum, and a swastika was carved into his chest — after the sister of one of the boys said the Latino boy had tried to kiss her.
It is an America where many suffered anti-gay violence in 2008.
It is an America where Ecuadorian immigrant Jose Sucuzhanay was beaten with a bottle and a baseball bat by four men yelling anti-gay and anti-hispanic slurs, while on his way home from a bar and walking arm in arm with his brother.
It is an America where Lawrence King, a gay teenager who sometimes feminine attire and identified as “Leticia” was shot to death by a classmate.
It is an America where a lesbian in California was brutally gang-raped by four men, who saw her getting out of her car, which had a rainbow sticker on the bumper, and who later commented about the victim’s sexual orientation.
It is an America where Mychal Bell, one of the black students who became known as the Jena Six was convicted of attempted murder. It is an America where Shaqunda Cotton and Genarlow Wilson received sentences that far outweighed the seriousness of their offenses. And only after African American bloggers and other online communities spread the word about their cases did media attention follow, resulting in lower sentences and release in their cases.
It is an America where African American men are still held suspect.
It is an America where Baron Pikes, cousin of Mychal Bell, died after being tasered nine times in 14 minutes, by a white police officer in Winnfield, LA, even after he was handcuffed, and twice while apparently unconscious. The coroner ruled Pikes’ death a homicide, saying that he was probably dead after the seventh shock. The coroner further discounted police claims, finding no sign of asthma or drug use during the autopsy, though police claimed that Pikes told them he had asthma and had been using PCP and crack cocaine.
It is an America where scores of African Americans were tortured during questioning by Chicago police during the 1970s and 80s; many into giving coerced confessions to crimes they didn’t commit.
It is an America where more young blacks are involved in homicides
It is an America where the presidential election saw Obama’s opposition employ racist robo-calls, printing his picture on food stamps, publishing op-eds that employed almost every racial stereotype ever applied to black men.
It is an America where we saw and heard displays of racism during the presidential election such as we haven’t seen or heard for some time.
Some Americans say Obama’s race and uncommon background make them uncomfortable – here those people include Democratic precinct chairmen and get-out-the-vote workers.
Many Americans receive e-mails falsely calling Obama a Muslim – here a local newspaper columnist has joked in print that Obama would have the White House painted black and would put Islamic symbols on the U.S. flag.
“I’ve never been prejudiced in my life,” said Sharon Fleming, 69, the wife of a retired coal miner, who spends hours at the union hall calling voters on behalf of Obama. “My niece married a black, and I don’t have a problem with it. Now, I wouldn’t want a mixed marriage for my daughter, but I’m voting for Obama.”
Ben and Beth Bailey sat in the back and clapped politely, but they remained unpersuaded. They said they were likely to break from their tradition of voting Democratic and might well not vote at all.
Obama “just doesn’t seem like he’s from America,” said Beth Bailey, 25. Ben Bailey, 32, noted that Obama’s middle name is Hussein, “and we know what that means.”
Beth’s father, Josh Viers, is the party’s Whitewood precinct chairman, responsible for working the polls and urging Democrats to vote the party line. He came around to backing Obama only recently, and reluctantly.
“Am I racial? Am I prejudiced? No, I’m not,” said Viers. Still, he is frustrated that his job is to persuade other Democrats to back a black man.
“Somebody in Buchanan County or in the United States can look at him and say, ‘He’s not my color,’ ” said Viers. “Why put yourself in that position? We had a shot four years ago, and the people listened to lies, rumors, negative ads and got us beat. Bush got him a second term, and look what it got us.”
“Barack Obama Won’t Take Away Your Gun,” says one flier. “But John McCain Will Take Away Your Union.”
A local newspaper columnist, in a spoof of Obama’s platform, wrote in one recent piece that the Democrat would hire the rapper Ludacris to paint the White House black (a reference to a pro-Obama song by Ludacris), and divert more foreign aid to Africa so “the Obama family there can skim enough to allow them to free their goats and live the American Dream.” He joked that Obama would replace the 50 stars on the U.S. flag “with a star and crescent logo,” an Islamic symbol, and that his policy on drugs would be to “raise taxes to pay for Obama’s inner-city political base.”
The columnist, Bobby May, is also treasurer of the Buchanan County Republican Party and was listed in a July news release as the county’s representative on McCain’s Virginia leadership team, though he said his column reflected his views alone, and he denied it was racist.
It is an American where one campaign played on the worst in our natures, and carried a clear though unspoken message.
I thought it would be cruel to write any sooner, when whites and blacks alike were so effusively celebrating Obama’s victory. It would be unseemly to strike a discordant note when a clear majority of Americans was savoring this putative post-racial moment in their history.
Memories are so short. In the weeks following his choice of Sarah Palin on August 29, John McCain began closing the gap behind Obama. The election got closer after Palin electrified the Republican Convention with her line about how “We grow good people in our small towns…” The message to blacks, Hispanics and Asians in America’s cities was clear: they are not “good people.”
It is an America where our former vice president visited a lodge that displayed the confederate flag.
It is an America where our outgoing president has purchased a home in a gated community in Dallas, where, until 2000, only whites were allowed to live.
It is an America where racism has not vanished, but has taken on a more subtle appearance. It is an America where blacks receive less aggressive medical care than whites.
It is an America where the infant mortality rate for blacks and Hispanics is more than twice the rate for whites.
It is an America where the income gap between black and white families has grown, where middle class blacks have difficulty passing their economic status on to their children, and where the wealth gap has grown for black and Hispanic families.
It is an America where minorities were wrongly blamed for causing the economic crisis, following a long tradition of scapegoating minorities for almost every problem the country faces, even though the claims were totally myth-based to begin with.
It is an America where the reins of power remain largely in familiar hands.
…There are now no African-Americans in the Senate. In fact, when Obama won the Senate seat in November 2004, he became only the fifth African-American ever to sit in the Senate. If Burris isn’t seated, the odds are good that the Senate will have no African-Americans for years to come.
The Senate’s glaring diversity problem goes far beyond the white out of African Americans. The paucity of openly gay members, minorities and women among the 100 senators is just as glaring. The Senate is pretty much a clubby good ole’ boy network of mostly rich, white males.
The Senate has sole power to approve a declaration of war, debate treaties, approve nominations to the Supreme Court and decide the guilt or innocence of an impeached president.
The Founding Fathers made no secret that they wanted the Senate to be an Olympian lawmaking body. James Madison bluntly wrote that the Senate should be the ultimate check to prevent the people from “overwhelming” government. For nearly 125 years, state legislators elected senators. The 17th Amendment passed in 1913 changed that. But it did not end the Senate’s political insulation and elitism. Nearly two-dozen senators are millionaires. Many have been in the Senate for decades, and they are virtually impossible to unseat. The six-year Senate term of office is the longest of any elected body in America. That spares senators the need to continually debate issues and policy decisions directly with voters. It also shields their legislative actions from public scrutiny.
Mississippi is a textbook example of how changing racial demographics have little effect on Senate incumbents. Blacks comprise a third of the state’s population, and more than a quarter of the voters. They are solidly Democratic. Mississippi had the one of highest percentage of black delegates at the Democratic convention in 2008. Yet before Trent Lott quit the Senate he and Thad Cochran, had been in the Senate more than four decades.
Still, it is an America that chose Barack Obama as its next president.
So, there is an undeniable and perhaps even justifiable feeling that King’s dream — or at least some portion of it was fulfilled yesterday. After all 76% of Americans believe America is ready for a black president, according to one poll. Yet, that optimism is tempered with the reality of all of the above.
More than two-thirds of African-Americans believe Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision for race relations has been fulfilled, a CNN poll found — a figure up sharply from a survey in early 2008.
The CNN-Opinion Research Corp. survey was released Monday, a federal holiday honoring the slain civil rights leader and a day before Barack Obama is to be sworn in as the first black U.S. president.
The poll found 69 percent of blacks said King’s vision has been fulfilled in the more than 45 years since his 1963 “I have a dream” speech — roughly double the 34 percent who agreed with that assessment in a similar poll taken last March.
But whites remain less optimistic, the survey found.
“Whites don’t feel the same way — a majority of them say that the country has not yet fulfilled King’s vision,” CNN polling director Keating Holland said. However, the number of whites saying the dream has been fulfilled has also gone up since March, from 35 percent to 46 percent.
In November, a majority of blacks for the first time believed that the U.S. would eventually find a solution to its racial problems; now a majority of blacks believe that race relations will always be a problem in this country. Blacks do believe that the Obama presidency will be good for them — 61 percent say that the quality of life for African-Americans will improve over the next four years. Optimism for a new era has also dropped among whites.
Perhaps there is more than one mountain top. King stood upon one, and looked out into a promised land that we are still journeying towards. We have walked between mountain tops since then, journeying towards that promised land, and the fulfillment of that dream. And we are closer to it than we have ever been.
In that sense, in Obama’s election and swearing in, together we have reached a new mountain top. where King stood alone on his mountain top, following the path of his dream we now all stand upon another mountain top. From here we can look back at the peak where King had his vision, and the valley we travelled from King’s mountain top to America’s mountain top, and our collective mountaintop moment.
From here — having witnessed together a moment that so many never dreamed they would live to see — we can see the promised land King spoke of. We can see more of it now. We can begin to see it’s shape. We can look out at its horizon, and wonder if it’s really big enough for all of us to find a place in it. It seems close enough to touch; so close that it’s tempting to believe that we can step off of this peak and that our feet will touch its solid ground.
But we are not there yet. We have more ground to cover between where we really are and were we want to be.
From here, we can also look ahead, knowing that when we descend from this height — when we come down from the high of how far we have come — we have further yet to go. But in this moment we can see our path more clearly.
In this election, perhaps more than in any election for a generation or more, Americans choosing more than just a president. We were choosing the kind of country we want to be. And 45 years after King climbed his mountain top and brought his vision back to us, America reached another mountain top and caught a glimpse of the promised land King dreamed of, envisioned, and told us we would reach.
And, in our collective mountaintop moment, we decided we still want to make the trip.
Now begins the rest of our journey, together.