From the stage of a recent Barack Obama rally in Atlanta, estimated to be 30,000-strong, I witnessed a marvelous expression of a new attitude being born in the American psyche.
Witness the mosaic: young and old, black and white and brown; from all economic stations, “all fired up” over this extraordinary candidate. And I said, “Thank you Lord for allowing me to live long enough to experience this now.” It’s not just the force of the moment, but it is an idea whose time has come—“the fierce urgency of now.”
That’s what Barack Obama’s candidacy embodies: freedom now, not four years later or the next time around. Not only is Obama a breath of fresh air, his promise of hope is deliverance from the dynasties of an old guard that commands the current political landscape. Not only does he represent a break from the status quo, he generates an enthusiasm among young people—energy not witnessed my entire 86 years of life. Obama is the face of tomorrow today.
In a society where race defines so much, Barack Obama is not hampered by his blackness. In the overwhelmingly white Iowa Democratic Caucus, which gave him a sweeping victory, an unshackling played out in the same way the burden of race was lifted, and the people of Massachusetts (black people make up only six percent of the electorate) chose Deval Patrick—a black man—as governor.
Can we celebrate, finally, that the white electorate is taking a cue from the African American community by voting for a candidate with little to no regard of his or her race? Are the voters in a state that is 95 percent white affirming to the nation—but especially to the African American community—that indeed a black man can win?
As the Democratic primaries move to the southeastern states—South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Maryland, Virginia, Tennessee and Louisiana—where black voting strength is considerable, that message has particular relevance.
I am certainly not advocating an appeal to racial politics, although I will admit to a deep level of pride. My caution is don’t embrace this soaring political star simply because he’s black but because he’s deserving.
To know Obama is to celebrate the American success story that we have always yearned to live.
Abandoned by his father and raised by grandparents, he studied hard and believed in his intellect. His achievements are celebratory: Columbia under grad, Harvard Law, first black president of the Harvard Law Review, civil rights attorney, Illinois state senator, and the United States Senate—the third African American since Reconstruction to hold that seat.
He has not climbed to the pinnacle of achievement without hard work and personal sacrifice. As a community organizer he passed up lucrative offers to be a corporate lawyer to labor in the trenches. It was only his arrival on the national scene and his best selling book that allowed him and his wife Michelle to pay off law school loans.
Supporting Barack Obama is not just voting for a black man. It is a statement for change. It is an act of courage.
In the early days of the civil rights struggle, so many people hung on the sidelines even though they believed in the correctness of our cause. They were shackled by their own fear, although not without reason. The threat of physical harm was real. We were challenging the status quo and our opponents were vicious in their grasp on an old order. But we pushed forward, relegating our fears to the background in pursuit of liberty. We had to trust in the Higher Power that had inspired those aspirations in the first place.
Certainly the waging of our vote in the presidential primaries won’t be challenged with fire hoses and dogs. Though, I sense a subtle and uneasy fear in our community, more insidious, cloaked and unspoken. The fear of change, of the new and of potential peril can only be resolved by embracing the possibilities on the other side.
To recall the words of James R. Lowell, “Then to side with truth is noble, when we shared her wretched crust, Ere her cause bring fame and profit and tis prosperous to be just; Then it is the brave man chooses while the coward stands aside, Till the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied.”
We are on the brink of touching a collective dream, fleeting and possible. Let us make it real as we celebrate the future today.
(Reverend Joseph Lowery is co-founder and President Emeritus of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Atlanta, Ga.)