Originally published Wednesday, November 5, 2008
Back in 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., made his famous and inspiring “I Have a Dream” speech. In that speech Dr. King said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
I always thought of this as The Impossible Dream. Growing up in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, I witnessed segregation with my own eyes. I won’t detail the ugliness of Jim Crow and racism because I know you all have seen footage of police turning dogs and fire hoses on men, women, and children who were doing nothing more than demanding the rights guaranteed them by our constitution.
It was an ugly time. But many courageous Americans, black and white and brown, young and old, rich and poor, ordinary citizens and powerful politicians, said enough is enough. They stood up to the status quo and forced change. It wasn’t easy; some people lost their lives in the struggle; there was regrettable violence and destruction of property along the way.
But change came. At least on the surface. Public accommodations were integrated. Public schools were integrated. Opportunities opened up to black Americans that had previously been reserved almost exclusively for white Americans.
Racial hatred is still with us. It is deep-seated in our society, in our culture. But racism in the United States is dying a slow death. With each new generation, racism grows weaker. Using racial slurs in public is no longer acceptable in this country. The face of America is changing.
But what about America’s heart? Was I wrong about The Impossible Dream? Over the decades we have been inching our way toward a more racially tolerant society, taking baby steps and making real but slow progress as a society.
But racism is still strong in this country. It no longer manifests itself in the form of lynchings, although there are occasional incidents of racial murders such as the one in Jasper, Texas, a few years ago. We no longer have separate school systems based on race. But in the South, there is a de facto system of segregated schools where white parents send their children to wholly or predominantly white private schools and the rest are relegated to substandard and grossly underfunded public schools.
I don’t mean to pick on the South. There are examples of active and passive racism in all parts of the country, but it is most prevalent and apparent still in those old slave states where social conservatism and religious fundamentalism thrive. But the South is changing. As more people move south from the northeast, upper midwest, and west coast, where the culture tends to be more liberal and tolerant and open, the stagnant and poisonous atmosphere of the Old South is being diluted with the breath of fresh air brought by the new migration.
But the question remains. Are we any closer as a nation to judging a person by his character rather than by the color of his skin? Until a few days ago, I would have answered that question with a resounding NO! Just look at the Republican scare-mongering in the recent presidential election. The black candidate, Barack Obama, was painted as different, foreign, exotic, dangerous, un-American.
The truth is that Obama is about as American as they come. Although his father and step-father were both from foreign countries, Barack’s mother and maternal grandparents, who raised him, btw, were as American as Kansas. Obama worked hard to get a good education, worked hard to serve his community and help the disadvantaged, and worked hard to get elected to public office in order to serve the larger community. He’s living the American dream, and he wants to put the American dream within the grasp of ALL Americans.
When Obama entered the Democratic primary, I thought he didn’t stand a chance. There’s no way the Democrats will nominate a black to run for president. But the people of Iowa thought differently. They judged the candidates by their character, not by the color of their skin. In other hard-fought primaries, voters in other states followed suit. In the end, it came down to two very strong candidates, one a white woman, the other a black man. Character was all that was left by which to judge the candidates. The competition was close; Barack Obama prevailed.
But what would happen come the general election? Would the American people do the impossible?
I admit it. I was wrong. I’ll shout it from the rooftops. I WAS WRONG!!!!!! The Impossible Dream is not impossible. It’s not even improbable. It is real, and it is attainable, and we are firmly on the road to achieving it. Barack Obama is now our president-elect and he won in a landslide victory, over 63 million votes and still counting! Four states haven’t been decided yet–North Carolina and Indiana, which are leaning Obama, and Montana and Missouri, which are leaning McCain. But the outcome isn’t even remotely in doubt. Obama won states in every region of the country except the arctic (which has only one state, Alaska) with broad support from the electorate. Character trumped race. Yesterday we made history.
Never did I think that a black person would be elected president of the U.S. in my lifetime. Never did I think MLK’s dream could come true. Well, I’m here to tell you that dreams do come true. We still have a long way to go. Our country faces many difficult challenges ahead and President-Elect Obama has his work cut out for him. Nothing will be easy, but this country never backs down from a challenge. And neither does Barack Obama.