A Day I Thought I’d Never See
Watching the concert Sunday night at the Lincoln Memorial, it really began to sink in that Barack Obama will be sworn in as the forty fourth president of the United States tomorrow morning. I’m far too much of a cynic to put my hope in government solutions to our country’s problems, but that’s the way it is right now, and I feel encouraged by the fact that Tuesday we will see something that, at least for this white man who grew up in the shadow of segregation, never dreamed would happen in my lifetime.
I was in third grade when the schools were desegregated in 1954, but it had no immediate impact on me; my suburban classrooms were still almost all white. We moved back into Kansas City in 1957, and after a black kid rode his bike into the neighborhood one afternoon, we were told that night, in no uncertain terms, that we couldn’t play with him again. My aunt and uncle weren’t what I would call racist, but segregation was the law, and though blacks and whites could work alongside each other, they could not live so. I was never taught to hate anybody, but the implication was to keep to your own.
This struck me as inherently wrong morally and significantly at odds with my then-Christian beliefs. While the battles of the civil rights movement played out on the pages of Life magazine and on television newsreels, I read Black Like Me, the story of John Howard Griffin’s trip to the deep South disguised as a black man, and Dick Gregory’s memoir From the Back of the Bus. But the clincher was Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a scathing indictment of institutional racism in the little town of Maycomb, Alabama, as seen through the eyes of children my same age. With Tom Robinson’s trial, the veil was lifted.
This coincided with my first political stirrings, beginning in 1959, when, as a seventh grader, I gave a stump speech over the Calvary Lutheran School intercom for candidate John F. Kennedy. (He lost overwhelming in our classroom 13-2 to Richard Nixon.) I knew nothing really of his politics at the time, but I was stirred by his enthusiasm and his powerful calls to action. His murder, along with Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the war in Vietnam and a host of other tragedies snuffed out that particular flame. Today, I feel some of that same enthusiasm, but it is now tempered with a skepticism born of decades of cynicism.
Remembering the outrageously partisan rule of the last eight years, the particular nastiness and racist overtones of the campaign and the ultimate election of a mixed race black man by a majority of American voters is worth savoring along with King’s memory.
Meanwhile, I just got an email advertising, for only $9.99, an Obama commemorative plate. Come Wednesday, all bets are off.