This past week will mark a turning point in American history no matter how the election turns out, because it is yet another turning point in the history of relations among the races in the
So powerful was the democratic ideal represented by the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution that it initially inspired even those inhabitants of the
As I have noted here before, current history pays little attention to the great black leaders of the Lost and GI generations, such as Walter White (who took over the leadership of the NAACP from Dubois), White’s successor Roy Wilkins, and Thurgood Marshall. Yet it was they and their white contemporaries who deserve by far the most credit for the end of legal segregation from 1947 (when Harry Truman integrated the armed forces) to 1965 (when the voting rights was passed.) The Silent Generation, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., started the civil disobedience movement that was also crucial to the passage of the civil rights acts, but they were building upon several decades of organizational work, intense involvement in the politics of northern states, and the decades-long legal struggles that led to Brown v. Board of Education. (Those were largely the brainchild of another forgotten leader, Charles Hamilton Houston, a law professor at
But the passage of the civil rights acts, as the Library of America shows so clearly, coincided with two other fateful events. The first was the coming of age of the Boom generation, black and white, which had an instinctive distrust of its elders’ achievements. The second was the Vietnam War, which left the government of the
One could write a book about the development of this new black consciousness over the last four decades, but I will content myself to a few remarks. First of all, during the previous century and a half, racist white politicians, newspapers, and, not least, historians, had spread numerous outrageous myths about black people, and it was only natural that black Americans, as soon as they could speak freely, would return the favor. (The most extraordinary example of white propaganda related to Reconstruction, which southern historians had successfully convinced the whole country by the 1930s had been a disaster and a disgrace, instead of a legitimate attempt to secure equal rights for all southerners.) Secondly, it seems sad that although the sins of white Americans towards their black fellow citizens were certainly bad enough in reality, orators like the Reverend Wright feel compelled to exaggerate, stating, for instance, that the black syphilis patients in the
Thus it is well-established, for anyone who wants to find out, that whites did not invent black African slavery—they took advantage of it. Slavery was a thriving institution in much of
And what about Barack Obama?
When I read, and then watched, his speech last Tuesday, I thought it was the most effective speech of the last 45 years or so, an extraordinarily honest attempt both to define the racial crisis (in large part, a crisis of beliefs and opinions, as I have tried to show) in the United States, and to try to move beyond it. When Obama referred to the bigoted remarks of his white grandmother, I also smiled to myself because of the kinship that I (as the product of a religiously mixed marriage) felt with him. We half-breeds, I said to myself, can’t be trusted—we have no allegiance to anything but principles and we’ll rat out anybody. (Our existence, too, is a living rebuke to bigotry. Take it from me, no one can hate bigotry more than those of us who know that if everyone were a bigot, we would never have been born.) But I admit that when I actually watched Reverend Wright’s now-notorious clips yesterday, I was shaken, both with respect to Obama’s judgment and with respect to my own ability to be consistent. Would I, I asked myself, be willing to accept as reasonable the candidacy of a Republican who for many years had attended a church whose pastor railed against godless feminists and homosexuals?
I would be most unlikely to vote for such a person, of course, simply because he or she was a Republican—but eventually something else occurred to me. If that candidate (let’s call him John Smith) were to make a speech repudiating those views, specifically likening them to extreme views on the other side of the political fence, and arguing that the
Bill Richardson’s courageous endorsement of Obama moves him a big step closer to the nomination. As of this morning, the three other leading Democrats who could have an even greater impact—John Edwards, Nancy Pelosi, and above all, Al Gore—seem likely to remain silent. The betting markets, however, still show Obama as an overwhelming favorite. He will face a brutal campaign against himself, but his personal demeanor on Tuesday suggests that he has the cool to handle it. If he loses, however, it will tell the black community that no black who even acknowledges mainstream black opinion, if only to disagree with it, can hope to become President, and that will be a terrible setback for the nation.