Wednesday, November 05, 2008
The change has been going on ever since the nation was founded. The struggle has been between the idealistic principle expressed in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal" and the compromise that was written into the Constitution which gave representation to states based on all of their free citizens and three-fifths of their slaves.
Like an infectious virus the ideal has worked its way into reality, through the mortal fever of the Civil War, the symbolic victories of people like Jackie Robinson, and the adolescent growing pains of the civil rights movement in the 1960's. It found its most eloquent voice in the person of Martin Luther King, and its greatest tragedy in his loss.
But last night Barack Obama extended King's promise, "that we as a people will get there," beyond the boundaries of race to include all of us, both in this country and the rest of the world.
I'm old enough to remember the years before the civil rights movement began to change the culture of America. When my family arrived in Miami in the 1950's racial segregation was still deeply entrenched, even more so than it was in the New York we had left behind. My parents were embarrassed about the "Colored" signs that everywhere denoted the second class restrooms, waiting rooms, seating areas, and water fountains reserved for those who were second class citizens.
I particularly remember the water fountains. A common arrangement was to have a small, non-chilled fountain attached to the wall next to the refrigerated ones for whites. Sometimes there were cup dispensers labeled "cups for colored." Once in my ignorance I tried to use one, and a passing man told my father that I shouldn't. My father didn't believe in the system, but he was practical, and so told me that I should save the cups for the people who had no choice but to use them. He was right. The next time I passed the same fountain I saw that the dispenser beneath the "cups for colored" sign was empty, as perfect a symbol as I can imagine for the vacant promise of "separate but equal."
I was 16 years old when King delivered his "I have a dream" speech in August of 1963. Home from school for summer vacation, I watched the whole pageant unfold in fuzzy gray images on a small black and white TV. The size of the crowd and the mix of ethnicities in it formed a backdrop as powerful as that of the Lincoln Memorial. I knew I was witnessing history, live as it happened -- a feeling I have seldom had since. There was the moon landing in 1969, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and last night an acceptance speech in Chicago.
We changed the Constitution in the 1960's so that it was no longer at odds with the noble sentiment in the Declaration. But reality has been slower to come around. It took two years from King's speech before my high school was finally integrated during my senior year. Then the civil rights issue was swamped in the upheaval of the Vietnam War and the larger cultural and generational struggle that is still going on today.
But we've reached another turning point, another day when we can say that things will be different from now on. I've never felt more proud of my country and its citizens. The best thing of all, as revealed in the demographic studies of the electorate, is that we have all done this together, across all the traditional lines that have ever divided us.
"We shall overcome" is not the only part of the old song that has come to pass. It is also true, as it says in the second verse, that "we'll walk hand in hand someday."