I was torn between elation and despair. I think I experienced a full measure of both in a very short time.
It was the 50th celebration, or remembrance, of the March on Washington by some 250,000 mostly black citizens to protest rank discrimination and prevalent racism in the United States of America.
The podium had been set up in the shadow of the first nominee of a new political party, birthed to fight the spread of slavery into the newly opened lands of an expanding experiment called America. The nominee was Abraham Lincoln, and the party called itself Republican.
As I watched, I was struck by the fact that no Republican president, senator or congressman had yet appeared, and it was almost time for the president to speak. I also noted the lack of a single conservative on the speaking roster – significant in view of the fact that both Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. were Republicans.
All speakers acknowledged Martin Luther King’s speech, and several went so far as to list some of the challenges facing black Americans at the time. One or two actually quoted from his “I Have a Dream” speech. Then it was time for the president of the United States of America to speak.
Put yourself in my shoes. I vividly recall the March on Washington and the “I Have a Dream” speech. I could not attend; I was overseas helping ensure a certain amount of freedom for citizens of another country, but we had Armed Forces Radio and television so we could see and hear.
Black G.I.s identified with King’s reference to the indignities of “whites only” signs. I could not vote in my home state. Back there, I drank from colored water fountains, used colored restrooms, used “colored only” entrances, slept in “colored only” motels, when I could find one. If not, we slept in the car at a roadside park. Take a minute to imagine it.
Now, here I sat in my own home in a completely integrated neighborhood, my youngest son in an interracial marriage, my other two sons owning their own businesses (not black businesses – just business businesses). My family and I eat, sleep, shop and go where we want to, not where we have to. I am watching a number of speakers and guests that included two presidents, a black congressman and a totally integrated crowd at the foot of the statue of the man who presided over a Civil War to secure precisely what was taking place.
And then the crowning moment: Into the sunlight stepped a man who had been freely elected by the citizens of a great country. It was as though Martin Luther King had been given a vision 50 years before. This was the president of the United States of America – a man “not judged by the color of his skin.”
He stepped up to speak to millions of Americans of every race, creed, national origin; every color; rich and poor; free men and women all. My heart swelled with pride and elation, this was my country – America – land of opportunity and freedom for all.
I listened and my joy and elation increased on the wings of his soaring rhetoric. He was telling the world Americans are who we claim to be. This is the “home of the brave, land of the free.” Listen world, “because they kept marching, America changed. Because they marched, the Civil Rights law was passed. Because they marched, the Voting Rights law was signed. Because they marched, doors of opportunity and education swung open so their daughters and sons could finally imagine a life for themselves beyond washing somebody else’s laundry or shining someone else’s shoes. (Applause) Because they marched, city councils changed and state legislatures changed and Congress changed and, yes, eventually the White House changed.” (Cheers, applause) I stood and cheered with them. Promise kept.
But then, he set about destroying the beautifully arranged scenario. I could feel the fist closing around my heart – surely not politics as usual? Another recitation of the same ole, same ole. He could not possibly be castigating the great country and its national pride and the love of liberty that put him there! But yes, there it was – blame, criticism, accusations and denigration of the very people who had made it possible for him to stand there as the embodiment of Dr. King’s “dream.” I forced myself to continue watching in the failing hope that his concluding remarks would remind the viewers that no matter the challenges, Americans were equal to them. But he did not, and my dismay was even more profound when he walked away from the microphone without the traditional close to all presidential addresses – “God bless the United States of America.”
I looked down, but then I looked up with hope in my heart and said what I know millions of other citizens said at that precise moment: “God bless the United States of America!”