I began supporting ‘Obama for President’ back in the summer of 1964 when he was three years old. I’m not sure of the exact day, but it might have been in the early hours just before dawn when I sat with my father in our living room, looking out on the front yard. He had a shotgun in his lap and a glass of Jim Beam bourbon and water at his side. He was determined that the ‘sons of bitches’ who had burned a cross the night before wouldn’t do it again. He didn’t plan to shoot them, just to ‘scare the hell out of the damned cowards’.
The Klan in our small Mississippi town had been fairly dormant for a decade or so, but the summer of ’64 triggered renewed fury in the white-sheeted brethren. They saw a very real threat to their way of life: a movement aided by an influx of northern white college students whose mission was to register black citizens to vote.
The thought of a ballot box filled with black votes led to the burning and bombing of black churches and homes, five churches in my hometown alone. My father, a lay-reader in the Episcopal church, tried to bring black and white clergymen together in a call for peace. It was a modest step, but it led to burning crosses, bomb threats and social isolation. We ended up leaving the town, and, finally, the state where my grandfather had been a member of the state legislature and a county prosecuting attorney for 50 years. Like many acts of violence, the Klan’s attempts to silence my family backfired. My parents changed almost overnight from gentle Southern liberals into dedicated foot soldiers in the Civil Rights movement my mother marching in Selma, my father organising legal protection for blacks registering to vote in Albany and Americus, Georgia.
Their home in Maryland became a refuge for weary civil-rights workers, black and white, in need of a few days’ warmth and shelter. When Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act in 1965, they both wept. My father believed it was the most important piece of legislation since the Constitution, that it would make the Bill of Rights a reality. If I ever wondered if Barack Obama was presidential, any doubts ended last March, when he gave his speech entitled ‘A More Perfect Union’.
The Lincoln scholar Gary Wills later made comparisons between Mr Obama’s speech and a speech given by Lincoln in 1860: two young men from Illinois, both lawyers, both seeking his party’s nomination against a New York senator of great reputation; both known for opposing an initially popular war—Lincoln against President Polk’s Mexican War, Mr Obama against President Bush’s Iraq war. And both men were accused of associations with extremists: Lincoln of supporting Abolitionists who had burned the Constitution, Mr Obama of supporting the inflammatory preacher who’d damned the US. As remarkable as these coincidences, however, was the vision of America professed in the two speeches. With restrained optimism and solemn pragmatism, Lincoln and Mr Obama both spoke of a civilisation that can improve itself.
Mr Obama’s belief throughout the long campaign has been that America can be better. I know there are dark days ahead. Mr Obama inherits a terrible legacy. But I’m celebrating the success of a man who can articulate feelings and ideas.
President-Elect Obama may not have the resplendent eloquence of Lincoln, but, after a parched eight years, he sounds like a prince of language. And I’m glad to have lived long enough to see that the Promised Land the land promised by the Constitution is in view.
The day after the election, I swear I could hear my father’s soft voice repeating his favourite words from Martin Luther King: ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’