A nation could be on the verge of its Mandela moment
Patricia Williams, academic and author, grew up with the Civil Rights movement. She believes an Obama win will be a giant leap towards the realisation of Martin Luther King’s dream.
Given the drama of our last two presidential elections, most of us Americans are much too cautious to prognosticate prematurely. Nevertheless, I can’t stifle a fizzy little hiccup of joy at the prospect of something like our own Nelson Mandela moment.
By this, I do not mean to say that the election of Barack Obama would launch us into some sort of ‘post-race’ utopia – it is naïve to think that the urgently worrisome accumulations of racial inequality, ghetto isolation, horrendous rates of incarceration, or economic disparity will evaporate overnight.
As one marker of progress, however, the election of Obama would be hugely significant. It would surely count as something like a toehold on the proverbial mountaintop for which Martin Luther King so longed.
I am a baby boomer beneficiary of the Civil Rights movement. My life has been immeasurably enriched by the trajectory of events that began around the time I was born, and for which Obama’s election would be a remarkable capstone. I was about three when Brown v. Board of Education ended legal segregation in schools; and, although I didn’t understand its significance then, I remember the gathering of relatives at my aunt’s house – there was an intense, sizzling electrical emotional arc that I have never forgotten.
I was in pre-school when the Montgomery bus boycotts took place. Always a little ahead of their time, my mother and father wanted me to have a Rosa Parks doll; they wrote off to toy manufacturers urging them to mass-produce them.
I was in second grade when Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas was integrated. It took an order by President Eisenhower and the summoning of federal troops for the nine new black students to beat a path through the angry mobs and survive, if barely.
Years later, President Bill Clinton, who grew up a few towns away, would cite this as a particularly formative time in his life.
I had just turned 12 when Martin Luther King delivered his searing ‘I have a dream’ speech at the March on Washington. I remember weeping in front of the television. Who could fail to be moved? Things were changing.
Two weeks after that, four little girls died when white supremacists bombed their church in Alabama; and two months after that, President Kennedy was assassinated.
It was a frighteningly dark time. Nevertheless, these events put political pressure on President Johnson, as well as on Congress, to sign and pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which allowed outlawed discrimination based on race, colour, religion and national origin; and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, striking down literacy tests, poll taxes and other barriers designed to disfranchise black citizens. Johnson also issued Executive Order No. 11246, which required that ‘affirmative action’ be taken to hire more minorities in all realms of public employment.
In 1967, the last formal legal barrier fell – the case of Loving v. Virginia overturned the anti-miscegenation laws that had made it illegal for blacks and whites to marry one another in 16 states.
In the years since, various aspects of those foundational moments have been re-fought, in new settings, with differing facts and faces. As more blacks moved to the urban north, ‘inner cities’ became the battle ground. As we Civil Rights babies grew up, the fight to integrate schools expanded to become a broader movement for fair housing, equal pay, dignity and respect.
Blacks were appointed to cabinet-level posts, military commands and the Supreme Court. There were sufficient numbers of African Americans elected to Congress that the Congressional Black Caucus was founded.
Today, there are hundreds of black mayors in all parts of the United States, including the Deep South. And as the demographics of the United States have changed, so-called piggy-back coalitions have intersected with the core of the movement: other ethnic and religious minorities, immigrants, farm workers, women, gays, disabled and the elderly have all participated in pursuing the dream.
And while there are moments when a Democratic partisan such as me wonders if it’s the kind of victory that turns winning into losing, there has even sufficient diversity to herald the first conservative Republican African Americans in high places, like Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
New waves of backlash persisted and persist still, of course; and if that backlash has become somewhat less vulgar, it is often more insidiously coded and complex.
So while there is still much to be achieved, what is exciting about Obama’s ascendancy is that it has been so unequivocally positive, so uplifting, so … happy. When I think of the long slow progress of the modern Civil Rights movement, with its innumerable marches, murders, and martyrs, I can think of few victories that simultaneously had the potential for such genuine, uncompromised rejoicing as the vision of – dare I really say it? – President Barack Obama.
• Patricia Williams is a professor of law at Columbia University, New York