We hold these truths to be self evident...
I was raised in the early days of the collapse of American apartheid. One night, lying in bed talking with my Aunt Donna (in another bed, to be sure) who was just 5 years older than me when I was 8, I remember her speaking of the family's recent trip (1960) to Oklahoma to visit her brother: "They had separate drinking fountains and restrooms marked "colored" and "white." Our family lived in racially integrated Connecticut and were horrified that blacks and whites were still kept separate by law in parts of the South. Nevertheless, I had never seen a living Black person until the mid 60s - before that the only people of color I knew were the "natives" of Tarzan movies. I didn't even know that the children's rhyme -eenie, meenie, mynee mo - was a racial slur until the campaigns of Dr. King helped me understand that the "N" word was ugly and wrong.
I came from good Scots-Irish, working class, New England stock and we didn't associate with people of color beyond the work place. My grandma worked everyday with African-American cooks in the factory - and she loved them as colleagues - and still she taught me that God created the races to be separate and integration violated the sacred plan of the Lord. She railed at me when my 60s rock band auditioned at a Black club and freaked when we had some Black singers for a while: this goes against the Law of God! And while we in the North hated discrimination in theory, we feared integration in our neighborhoods as much as any Southern redneck.
So I am overwhelmed tonight with tears of joy to see Barack Obama win the nomination to be President of the United States on the Democratic ticket. It was only 45 years ago that apartheid ended in America - and so much has changed. My children are much more color blind than I ever was. They are also much more relaxed about gender differences, too. Dr. King, in his last speech to striking garbage workers in Memphis, Tennessee shared these prophetic words in his imaginary conversation with the Lord of Creation:
"Strangely enough, (if I could choose when to live) I would turn to the Almighty, and say, "If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy." Now that's a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around. That's a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a away that men, in some strange way, are responding — something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same — "We want to be free."
I might claim the same blessing tonight for the 21st century: men - and women - are rising up and crying "We want to be free." Free from fear. Free from want. Free from destroying creation. Free from stupid and ugly wars. Free from racism - and sexism - and gender bigotry and all the rest. Free from culture wars. Free from all the bullshit that usually divides us... it is a sweet and beautiful night in America tonight and I give thanks to God that I was alive to see it happen. I have no idea where things will be tomorrow. But today I rejoice that for a moment, at least, we have overcome. As the election returns came in, my wife and I sat before the TV singing U2's song, "Pride in the Name of Love." It is always worth a reprise... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZdpwvVBXdfQ
I also reread Dr. King's last speech from Memphis - a speech that was unusually personal and prophetic - one in which he spoke of an assasination attempt and I reprise these words for you: You know, several years ago, I was in New York City autographing the first book that I had written. And while sitting there autographing books, a demented black woman came up. The only question I heard from her was, "Are you Martin Luther King?" And I was looking down writing, and I said yes. And the next minute I felt something beating on my chest. Before I knew it I had been stabbed by this demented woman. I was rushed to Harlem Hospital. It was a dark Saturday afternoon. And that blade had gone through, and the X-rays revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge of my aorta, the main artery. And once that's punctured, you drown in your own blood—that's the end of you. It came out in the New York Times the next morning, that if I had sneezed, I would have died.
Well, about four days later, they allowed me, after the operation, after my chest had been opened, and the blade had been taken out, to move around in the wheel chair in the hospital. They allowed me to read some of the mail that came in, and from all over the states, and the world, kind letters came in. I read a few, but one of them I will never forget. I had received one from the President and the Vice-President. I've forgotten what those telegrams said. I'd received a visit and a letter from the Governor of New York, but I've forgotten what the letter said. But there was another letter that came from a little girl, a young girl who was a student at the White Plains High School. And I looked at that letter, and I'll never forget it. It said simply, "Dear Dr. King: I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School." She said, "While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I am a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I'm simply writing you to say that I'm so happy that you didn't sneeze."
And I want to say tonight, I want to say that I am happy that I didn't sneeze. Because if I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been around here in 1960, when students all over the South started sitting-in at lunch counters. And I knew that as they were sitting in, they were really standing up for the best in the American dream. And taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been around in 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Georgia, decided to straighten their backs up. And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can't ride your back unless it is bent. If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been here in 1963, when the black people of Birmingham, Alabama, aroused the conscience of this nation, and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill. If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have had a chance later that year, in August, to try to tell America about a dream that I had had. If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been down in Selma, Alabama, been in Memphis to see the community rally around those brothers and sisters who are suffering. I'm so happy that I didn't sneeze.
I am, too, because tonight it is clear that the dream lives on.