I must admit to having cried last night when Barack Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States.
Part of it was jubilation, the sort of feeling prevalent in Eastern Europe back in 1989 when the Berlin Wall came crashing down. As Marilyn said, it feels like we have finally gotten rid of the Ceausescus. That big crowd in front of the White House may as well have been carrying pitchforks.
But the big reason, the one that actually set me to sobbing, was the fact that my country has elected a black man, chosen a leader not for the color of his skin but rather for the content of his character. He will be the head of state, but he will be more than that: like all presidents, he is a symbol of the nation he leads. We do not have a royal family here, but we do have a first family, and they are Barack and Michelle, Sasha and Malia, and a puppy as yet to be named.
Oh, how far we've come.
Racism has always been a part of American life. Our very Constitution established that for census purposes “non-free” residents should count as three-fifths of a person. The Civil War may have ended slavery, but for at least a century afterwards we were enslaved by bigotry. Blacks have been lynched, denied the right to vote, denied educational and economic opportunity, denied the right to ride in the front of the bus. I am not all that old, but I am old enough to remember the events of the 1960s -- the fire hoses, the attack dogs, the murders of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr. and others -- black and white -- who laid their lives on the line to put an end to this madness.
And then, last night, Americans did something that signified in a profound way that we have changed, that we have become something different, that we have become something better than we were. There was something almost effortless about it, until we remember all the sacrifices it took to get here.
Those racists who were responsible for the Jim Crow laws, for the murders in the middle of the night, are no doubt spinning in their graves right now, working their way ever closer to Hell. Those who are still with us, who just can’t stand the idea of a black man as their leader, as their national symbol, have some waking up to do.
I saw a pickup truck recently with a Confederate flag sticker and the words “Kick Ass White Boy” written above it. Next to it was a big American flag. Well, Kick Ass White Boy just got his ass kicked. And I’ll take those Stars and Stripes back, thank you. They belong to a country that is bigger, grander, wiser, and more diverse than it once ever dreamed it could be.
This is the America I love, the one that shows it is, in ways, the Promised Land. It has not been all that many years since Dr. King spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. I remember hearing his speech as a kid, and his thrilling words have never rung truer than they do right now:
“And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"
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