Obama and race

Black history is now American history.
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Martin Luther King Jr.

Black history is now American history.

The legacy of segregation lives on in strange ways. Ten years ago, I attended the annual convention of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies in Memphis, Tenn. One of the places I visited was the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.

The motel exterior is like a time capsule, so well preserved I know at least one man who once tried to check in. But within its former walls is an archive of history of the black experience in this country that never appeared in your grade school textbooks. After a tour through slavery, war, Civil Rights, Rosa Parks' bus, and on to King's assassination — where you peer into his motel room as it was the day he was shot — you are led on a journey that packs an unbelievable punch. When I left the museum the day I visited, I wept openly as I walked back to my hotel. I wept not only for the black experience, but for America's wound exemplified by a history hidden in plain sight.

In Memphis, as throughout our culture, history is divided into competing shrines. Black history lives at the Lorraine. America's white-dominated pop mythology flourishes just down the road at Elvis Presley's Graceland. The gap between these two is extraordinary, especially palpable if you tour both on the same day, as I did. Presely's "white trash" pad is a monument to excess, bad taste, and sexed-up, old boy charisma — and it's immensely popular. The Civil Rights Museum is a repository of a bigger, more real, gritty story of struggle, hopes, and lost opportunities. Visiting these worlds creates the dissonance of an unintegrated reality that was played out in the recent presidential campaign.

Obama's victory is about race. He had to run his campaign as if race didn't matter, and he did so successfully. That's what race required him to do. But no commentator has missed the significance to America of the fact of his racial identity. A black man as president. That in itself is a revolution. I was moved by Colin's Powell's take on its significance.

I was also moved by a story written by the late Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace, who figured in the election. John McCain stood accused of appealing to the kind of racial rage that was evident among Wallace's supporters in 1968, when he ran for the presidency and won much of the South. That accusation enraged McCain.

Wallace's daughter ,Peggy Wallace Kennedy, supported Obama, however. And she knew her father had changed in his later years. She had this to say about her father's legacy of segregation and reconciliation:

My father lived long enough to come to an understanding of the injustices borne by his deeds and the legacy of suffering that it left behind. History will teach future generations that he was a man who used his political power to promote a philosophy of exclusion.

As his daughter, who witnessed his suffering in the twilight of his years and who witnessed his deeds and heard his words, I am one who believes that the man who, on March 7, 1965, listened to the reports of brutality as they streamed into the Governor's Mansion from Selma, Alabama, was not the same man who, in March of 1995, was welcomed with open arms as he was rolled through a sea of African-American men, women and children who gathered with him to welcome another generation of marchers, retracing in honor and remembrance the historic steps from Selma to Montgomery.

Four years ago, the young Illinois senator who spoke at the National Democratic Convention mesmerized me. I hoped even then that he would one day be my president.

Today, Barack Obama is hope for a better tomorrow for all Americans. He stands on the shoulders of all those people who have incessantly prayed for a day when "justice will run down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream" (Amos 5:24).

Perhaps one day, my two sons and I will have the opportunity to meet Barack Obama in person to express our gratitude to him for bringing our family full circle.

Let us hope, as well, that Obama helps bring history full circle, helping us write a more whole, more complete story where black history and American history cease to be separate narratives.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.