Barack Obama’s impending victory reflects not simply the triumph of hope, or the desire for change. It reveals an America that keeps growing, keeps renewing itself, keeps getting better.
Senator Obama has special gifts. He has run a remarkable campaign, against the odds. But he has stood on the shoulders of giants. This has been a long campaign, but the journey to this day has been far longer.
On August 28, forty-five years from the day of Dr. King’s historic speech at the March on Washington, Barack Obama will receive the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party in Denver.
King’s speech marked a step in an on going movement. In 1954, a brilliant legal battle culminated in the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education, outlawing segregation as the law of the land. For many, including my parents, the decision suggested the impossible. “Integration? That’s not going to happen soon,” was the skeptical response.
Then on August 28, 1955, 14 year old Emmett Till was murdered for the “crime” of whistling at the white wife of a shopkeeper in Money, Mississippi. Till, raised in Chicago, was spending the summer with his uncle. His murderers gouged out his eyes, shot him in the head, used barbed wire to tie a cotton gin around his neck and threw him into the Tallahatchie River. Outraged, his mother brought his remains back to Chicago, and demanded a funeral with an open casket. It was reported that 50,000 people viewed the body. Jet Magazine sold record numbers of magazines. The protest of Mamie Till electrified African Americans, even as the murderers were acquitted by a white jury in Mississippi.
Three months later, Rosa Parks refused to get up from that seat on the bus. When I asked her how she dared face the threats that would follow, she said she was thinking about Emmett Till. She had seen a picture of his body, and was having trouble sleeping from the pain. She decided that it was time to act. A young minister, Dr. Martin Luther King, came to her aid. The Montgomery Bus Boycott moved the civil rights movement to the nation’s attention.
Then on August 28, 1963, Dr. King delivered his dream of a new America. The South was still segregated. Neither the Civil Rights Bill nor the Voting Rights Bill had passed. The march took place at a time of struggle, of beatings and arrests, of innocents sacrificed, heroes struck down. It was at that time that Dr. King looked beyond the agony of the moment to envision a new day, the hope of what might be.
His dream was an act of faith, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Suffering, we learned, breeds character. Character breeds faith. And in the end, faith will not disappoint. Faith, hope, and dreams will prevail.
Now, forty years later, Barack Obama’s victory is a testament not simply to his singular skills, but to the struggle and the sacrifice over many decades of many ordinary heroes, too often forgotten.
America is not yet a perfect nation. Race still divides. The gulf between rich and poor grows wider. We squander our wealth in misbegotten wars and misplaced priorities.
But America’s glory is not that it is perfect, but that it continues to grow. This takes courageous leaders and independent struggle, leadership not from the top down, but from the bottom up. Lyndon Johnson will be remembered as a giant who made great strides in protecting equal rights in this country. But his moment came only because Dr. King and his movement created the conditions in which Johnson was forced to act. Dr. King galvanized a nation, but his movement was utterly dependent on the courage and sacrifice of unsung American citizens, white and black, deciding to stand up against great odds, to remain disciplined in the face of brutal reaction, to keep on keeping on even when the dark seemed to shut out the light.
We’ve had a hotly contested primary. We’re headed to what will be a fierce general election, already featuring ugly efforts to divide us. But let us not forget to appreciate just how far we have come. And how many sacrificed to help us get here. And let us learn the lesson Dr King taught us: “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.”
Reverend Jackson n can be contacted by e-mail at JJackson@rainbowpush.org.