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August 28, 2008

The Content of Their Character: the March on Washington and Barack Obama

Ml2During our summer vacation, while I was in high school, I watched the broadcast of the 1963 March on Washington, which took place 45 years ago today.  As the day unfolded, much of my aspiration to be a member of the Lost Generation or a Greenwich Village beatnik gave way to a determination to become part of the “real world.”

The day was so seductive -- and it launched the next phase of my life.  I was transfixed.  Living in a little town on the Monongahela River outside Pittsburgh, I hadn’t paid much attention to the run-up to the march, so it was pretty astonishing.

Ml1As I watched, I knew that I belonged there - where there was purpose - in the middle of history.  It was a profound thing to listen to this man, to see the sea of people around him, watch the individual interviews, hear the music.  When people wonder how we became a generation of activists, I know that this was one of the moments that drove us forward, if we weren't there already.

How beautiful then that EXACTLY 45 years later, Barack Obama will accept the nomination of his party to be the Democratic candidate for President of the United States.  I heard Rep. John Lewis, so badly beaten in the 1965 march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, tell an interviewer that he wasn't sure he could make it through his own speech -- that if anyone had told him that 45 years after that Selma march he'd watch an African-American man accept the presidential nomination, he would have told them they were crazy.  Obama adviser and friend Valerie Jarrett, describing what it would mean to her parents in an interview with our own Erin Kotcki Vest, struggled to contain her own tears.  This is important.

And not just to African Americans.  Many people my age spent years working for civil rights while at home, in college, and out in the world.   Three civil rights workers our age, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney, two white and one black, were murdered by racists in Mississippi. Dozens our age, white and black, were beaten, arrested and terrorized on Freedom Rides.  It seemed such a clear injustice; we had to  change it.

Now the Democratic Party will be headed by an African-American man who was a tiny child when John Lewis faced police beatings on that bridge.

Now a black presidential nominee and a white VP nominee can hug - and hug one another's wives, on a public platform and evoke no comment.  And there will be no comment because it's no big deal.  It brought me to tears though - because I can remember when it would have been a VERY big deal indeed.

Our country has changed, and grown, since that day I stood, thrilled, in Provincetown.  Younger Americans have grown up in or around biracial households, are more and more "post-racial" and expect the same attitudes in their leaders.

Think about it.  We've been in such a feverish day-to-day battle that we've forgotten what an amazing thing this is.  I'm accused of being romantic, idealistic, optimistic - all those "ics" but it's pretty tough to argue with this: this is a very special moment in our history.  If America is as ready as the Democratic Party, we are on a path toward a different country and, as census reports demonstrate, not a moment too soon.

Remember that line of Dr. King's:  "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." Could it be that parts of that dream may actually now have the potential to come true?  If we can get this far, perhaps we're ready to go the rest of the way.

Cynthia Samuels also blogs at Don’t Gel Too Soon, where a similar post appears.

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