11/05/2008

143 Years Later

If you read a basic American History text you will learn that the Civil War ended in 1865 with the surrender at Appomattox, Virginia of Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Military history purists will argue it was another few weeks until the final Confederate troops in the field laid down arms.

obama-mlk Yet, in reality this war did not end. It simply moved underground and into the political arena. The creation of Jim Crow laws, poll taxes and other restrictive laws perpetuated the plight of the former slaves for another 100 years, denying them the right to vote, marry freely and enjoy the most fundamental civil liberties and security.

For the past 40 years we have, as a nation deluded ourselves into thinking we were "past" these struggles. Yet, African Americans still held relatively few positions of influence and power in our government. With notable exceptions such as Thurgood Marshall, Colin Powell and perhaps Condoleeza Rice the slate was very bare.

During the past several months we have seen political figures playing to our lesser instincts as rumors have circulated about Barack Obama's heritage, his friendships, his religion, and his race. Too often those operating in the shadows have played the cards of race and fear attempting to widen that not quite healed conflict from the 19th Century.

For the first time in years I watched election results come in without pause. During the early hours following the polls closing on the east coast I listened to pundits describe how this looked just like 2000 and 2004 and I was fearful.

Could America overcome 143 years of division in a single day? Was the hour finally at hand to lay the Confederacy to rest once and for all? Would we, once more, succumb to old prejudices and attitudes that had once launched the bloodiest war in our history?

With trepidation I watched the results. Finally, the news services called Pennsylvania for Obama and I felt a loosening in my chest. Still, though I wondered, how would this play out?

An hour or so later they called Ohio for Obama and I felt my body become lighter. For the first time I truly let myself think that this might be possible. That we might, as a nation, reject the old politics of the 19th and 20th centuries and truly become a nation that embraced diversity and stepped boldly forward together intent on fixing our problems, becoming self aware and finally ending a war that began in 1861 on the shores of Charleston Harbor in South Carolina.

As the night got longer and more and more states were placed in the Obama column I became overjoyed. Finally, they news services called the election for Barack Obama. He would become not only a breath of fresh air in an era of fear, division, and war but also our nation's first African-American President!

Quickly the news media flashed pictures of rallies around the country. At Spelman College in Atlanta I saw young African American women fall to their knees weeping in joy. I saw Martin Luther King, Jr.'s sister weeping openly in Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and that opened the flood gates for me. I sat watching the outpouring of joy, relief and healing. I cried as I saw people of all races embracing each other and weeping for joy, dancing, and screaming hallelujahs.

To be utterly honest, growing up in the south, I never thought I would see this day. Oh, sure, I would say that "maybe" one day it would happen. But knowing the deep seated racial divisions in my part of the country I never thought it would happen in my lifetime. I dreamed but dared not hope. But Barack Obama showed me the value last night of hope.

I am descended not of slave holders but of two very different parts of Southern society. On one side, I come from a devout Methodist family who repudiated slavery to the point that some left the south entirely rather than live among slave holders. On the other side I am a direct descendent of a plantation overseer. The overseer was the white manager of the slaves on a plantation and lived in a netherworld caught between rich owners and the slaves he drove to exhaustion in the fields.

As I listened to Barack Obama's speech he mentioned a lady 106 years old who cast her vote in Atlanta. I could not help but wonder what my own grandparents would think were they alive to see this day. After all, my paternal grandmother was 106 when she died. When she was young she knew people in her community who had been born into slavery.

In both cases my grandmothers carried those 19th century ideas of race and place with them. When they were feeling charitable they might refer to African Americans as "darkies" or "Negroes" but if perturbed they would often resort to the derogatory "nigger" in an off handed way that is incomprehensible today.

What would they think to see a proud, intelligent and compassionate African American man speaking eloquently of healing and public service as President Elect of the United States of America?  Would my dear "Grandmaude" think it a show as she did of the Moon landing? Would it simply be beyond comprehension for them to see the world in which they had come of age finally and completely fall away?

The news showed John McCain giving his concession speech from Phoenix. He was less than 150 miles from my home here in Tucson and as I watched the crowd booed and threw out many of the old epithets my grandparents would have found familiar. In that moment I thought, "I am watching the death of the Plantation Society at this moment." This was not an observation of Senator McCain or even Ms. Palin but the looks of stark hatred and sounds of catcalls that almost drowned him out as he spoke of his respect for Barack Obama and his desire for healing and shared purpose. This was Old Dixie in her death throes.

That, I think is what scared so many of these people so deeply that even today they continue to scream that the world will end and America will fall because of last night. They realized that their time has passed. America, the "real America" to use Ms. Palin's term, repudiated their values of division, racism and fear. Instead, yesterday, the country rose and said it was time to put an end to 143 years of conflict. It was time for change and it was time that America passed from adolescence into adulthood.

Last night was the night they drove old Dixie down. And, the Band, could not have been more right in their lyrics almost 40 years ago:

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,
and the bells were ringing,
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,
and the people were singin'.

Yes, I feel like singing... it's a beautiful new day and the Confederacy has at last been defeated. Ring those bells and in the words of Dr. King:

This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with a new meaning, "My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring."

And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!

Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!

But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

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!"

Yes, Dr. King, we are free at last! We have cashed the check and this time it has come in "PAID IN FULL"!

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