Tuesday, November 04, 2008
I've been thinking about Martin Luther King, Jr. today. And his dream.
I was a Civil Rights worker in the 60's, going door-to-door in Harlem, NY, registering people to vote who had never voted before.
Many invited me into their homes. I remember one elderly woman named Addie whose tiny apartment was poor but immaculate. A vase of plastic flowers adorned the checkered red and white oilcloth-covered kitchen table where she gave me ginger snaps and tea. On her wall was a picture of President Kennedy, right next to Jesus.
Her voice was so soft that I had to lean in to hear her. She spoke with quiet passion of her slave ancestors who managed to keep hope alive under circumstances most of us cannot imagine. And she agreed to vote so that her children's children could have a better life.
I attended the March on Washington on August 26, 1963 with my two-month old daughter in my arms along with about 250,000 other people. It was the largest demonstration ever seen in the nation's capital.
1963 was a time of racial unrest and civil rights demonstrations. The police in Birmingham, Alabama, had turned attack dogs and fire hoses against protesters, many of whom were children. Dr. King was arrested and jailed during these protests and wrote his famous "Letter From Birmingham City Jail," which advocated civil disobedience against unjust laws.
A Civil Rights Act was stalled in Congress.
The purpose of the march was the passage of meaningful civil rights legislation, elimination of racial segregation in public schools, protection for demonstrators against police brutality, a major public-works program to provide jobs; the passage of a law prohibiting racial discrimination in public and private hiring; a $2/hour minimum wage and self-government for the District of Columbia, which had a black majority.
The heavy police presence turned out to be unnecessary as the march was noted for its civility and peacefulness.
Today, a part of Dr. King's dream which became the dream of so many of us over far too many years, will be fulfilled.
Even the weather cooperated in San Francisco as sunny blue skies replaced nearly a week of heavy rain. I realized that I was smiling the whole time I waited at my polling place.
I strongly support Barack Obama and believe he will win, but the democratic process is more important even than any individual candidate. I am mindful of the fact that in many countries, citizens do not have the right to determine their own government.
Obama's victory would represent for me as for many others the coming full circle of America, a black President in my lifetime which has included seeing black people denied their right to vote. His candidacy has already performed a feat even more remarkable than the first airplane, piloted by Chuck Yeager, to break the sound barrier, traveling faster than the speed of sound.
There is no barrier quite as hard to penetrate as bigotry.
Long ago, on that historic day in Washington DC, Dr. King concluded his electric speech with these words: "And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.'"
I hope and pray that today is that day.