It was August 28, 1963. The place was the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. “I have a dream,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. declared. “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.” It is hard not to think, today, November 5, 2008, that that dream has been — at least in part — fulfilled.
Last night, just after 11 p.m. Eastern Standard time, this nation did something I personally never expected to happen in my lifetime. It elected Barack Obama — son of a Kenyan father and a white mother — President of the United States. It did so resoundingly. The electoral vote will end up being at least 338, with only 270 needed (North Carolina is still too close to call). The popular vote is 62.7 million versus 55.5 million – a margin of more than seven million votes.
I watched last night as an administrator at Howard University, a traditionally black university in Washington D.C., broke down and was unable to speak when asked what this election meant to her and her students. I watched as more than a million people (my family members among them) gathered in and near Grant Park and shouted, over and over, “Yes, we can!” I watched as state after state that had been red so often in the past turned blue on the map. New Hampshire. Ohio. Virginia. Indiana. Colorado.
Virginia. Where so many of my siblings and their children voted, many for the first time, and for Barack Obama. Where I plan eventually to retire, and have often said I wasn’t sure I would be comfortable in a state so very red. And Virginia… Virginia went blue.
Indiana, where my older brother and his family live (okay, so they’re really Chicago transplants, but Indiana went blue!).
Colorado. My native state. Colorado went blue!
Iowa. New Mexico. Nevada. Florida. Blue blue blue blue.
This election means a lot to me. I am a great believer in the separation of powers doctrine, and in the need for the courts to ensure that justice is done for all, rich and poor. I have fretted and worried as Justice after Justice of our Supreme Court has been chosen more for right-wing ideology than for any other reason, and as our Justice Department has been turned into more of an agency for securing Republican elections than for securing justice for our people. I don’t think I have to worry about the Court or the Justice Department any more.
But I have a great number of friends and family members for whom, I am certain, this election means so much more. Many of them, like Barack Obama, do not have white skins. They know, only too well, what it means to grow up in a country where the first thing people noted was their skin color and, too often, the last thing was the content of their character. They have nonetheless worked hard, educated themselves, raised good and decent children, and kept their hope and faith alive that there would someday be a better day. I think particularly of my friend Sheila who can now say to her son Alexander that he really can grow up to be President.
Many of the others are young people, both white and non-white, who have grown up confused and dismayed at what they have seen as the utter hypocrisy of their elders, who have so often mouthed the words of our Founding Fathers (“all men are created equal”) but acted so very differently. They had begun to develop a cynical thick skin at our political process. But I think they can all say to themselves, this morning, that there truly is a power in the individual vote, that they really can make a difference.
For all of them, and for all who truly believe that we are not white Americans, not black Americans, not Hispanic or Native American, not gay, not straight, not red and not blue — for all who believe that we are all, simply, Americans… this day is for you. For myself, I am simply overjoyed that I have lived long enough to see it.