Last Thursday night I had the privilege of listening to Barak Obama ‘s speech in Denver, Colorado. Michael Steele and I were guests of Fox News. It was ironic to me that two African Americans sat with Brett Baier to analyze the historic speech of America’s most brilliant, political luminary.
As I reviewed the printed copy of the Senator’s speech, I could not help but think about the fact that 45 years before, the very soul of America had been changed by the speech of America’s greatest preacher, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I was about to enter the 4th grade in 1963. We lived in Cincinnati, Ohio at that time. My family had been staunch supporters of the civil rights movement, actively involved as foot soldiers. Nine years before, my father had been threatened at gunpoint by a Florida state trooper because of his involvement in voter rights advocacy. A mean-spirited, white trooper actually discharged his handgun as an intimidating act of terror. As a result of the threat, my father moved our family to Ohio.
At the time of the rally, dad was a government worker. Therefore, any involvement with such a rally would have been off limits. Yet my family and millions of other blacks simply believed that the lyrics to the song We Shall Overcome were true. We had heard King speak before and were impressed by his courage and conviction. My 79 year-old mother reminded me what historians have corroborated; the phrase “I have a dream” had been used by King prior to the momentous occasion of the Lincoln Memorial speech.
No one in my family saw the speech as a significant watershed moment. In contrast, the rally was deemed important and the growing momentum of the civil rights movement marked an unmistakable difference. My parents understood that America would change someday.
My father could not have known that in 12 short years he would have moved from being a mail handler in Cincinnati, Ohio to being the Director of Personnel at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing just before his untimely death of natural causes. The possibility of such a position was part of the change.
King’s message to America from DC took on a life and authority of its own. Somehow, King's message became the intellectual property for our entire nation. Blacks and whites alike quote the King speech as part of our common history. King has become more than just a great African American - he has become a great American. He has become a transcendent citizen – despite personal flaws and limitations.
As I reviewed Obama’s speech, I thought that the major difference between King’s speech and the senator’s was the fact that Obama was standing on King’s shoulders. Barack has been able to take great strides politically today because of how far all Americans have come in race relations. Some people have said that if Senator Obama does not get elected it is because of the racism of the average American. I would like to assert the exact opposite of that statement. It is because America has journeyed so far that a serious black candidate for president is possible. I know that the nation is not perfect and that racial prejudice and race-based terrorism are a part of America’s darkest history. Despite this, the nation is actually coming to the point that the ultimate glass ceiling for both blacks and women is on the verge of being shattered.
Michael Steele and I disagree with many of Senator Obama's policies but I have been proud of the professionalism and skill with which he has run his campaign. As I alluded to earlier, Senator Obama's candidacy is a major signpost, signaling how far our nation has come in just 45 years.
On the surface, Obama’s speech seemed to be nothing more than a well, laid-out visionary oration. Some skeptics went so far as to label it just more Obama “fluff.” While many Republicans and Independents felt that it was short on specifics, it seemed to meet the need of his base - to unite the Democratic troops around a common goal of change. The polls this weekend seemed to suggest that he succeeded in avoiding a massive revolution within his party that could have come as a result of not choosing Hillary as a running mate.
The end of the Obama message was wonderfully crafted to draw upon the essence of King’s I Have A Dream speech. Obama’s litany of new promises about the American dream implies that it was an update of the vision that King had made to blacks alone for all people. Consider the following language taken from the original King speech:
In a sense we've come to our nation's Capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote … the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to … every American….
This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed…. America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. …a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."
I am thankful that John McCain took the time to acknowledge the historic nature of the Obama speech and its timing. He rightfully declared the 45th anniversary of King’s dream to be an American milestone. I am thankful that he waited until the next day to attempt to make history for his own ticket by naming Sarah Palin as his running mate. As the race for the White House continues, both Democrats and Republicans must be thankful for the clarity and passion of King’s dream.
What a difference a day makes!