I just got around to reading Clarence Jones’ article on the upcoming Obama inauguration. In it, Jones, an advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr., makes a profound and wonderful statement:
“Dr. King had an abiding belief in the basic goodness, fairness and decency of America. He never abandoned his confidence that a majority of Americans would ultimately embrace the precepts of our Declaration of Independence: That all persons are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”
The power of King was that he didn’t say America needed to do something new, to become another people, to end racism. He didn’t say that racism was part of the fabric of America, the legacy of America, the nature of Americans. King said racism was un-American, that it contradicted our basic founding principles, and that racism turned us into another, lesser people. King had the founding principles and documents of the United States on his side, and he knew it. He called for a return to our true nature and our original commission. He denounced racism as having no part in the American experience, and not worthy of us as Americans.
So rather than angrily or cynically dismissing our founding principles as lies and shams, King demanded that we all live up to them. And he won, because he was right.
I’ve noted elsewhere that Barack Obama shares this quality of King’s; he believes in the founding principles of this nation as the best thing about us, and, when we live up to them, the only thing that gives us integrity in the larger world.
My title comes from Ernest Shackleton, the Irish explorer to Antarctica whose 1914-1917 expedition is the stuff of legend. His ship, the aptly named Endurance, was trapped in ice and eventually crushed. For 10 months, Shackleton and his crew waited for a thaw, and once the ship was gone, spent four months drifting in the open ice on an ice floe until they hit land at Elephant Island. Knowing they couldn’t survive there for long, Shackleton took a small crew in a modified whaleboat they had saved on the floe and rowed 800 miles across the Antarctic Ocean to land, then marched for three days and nights through the ice mountains of South Georgia Island to a whaling station. He briefly rested, then took a whaling ship back to Elephant Island to rescue the rest of his crew. There was not one life lost.
When an astonished reporter, much later, asked Shackleton whether he believed any of the men he had left at Elephant Island would survive for his return, expecting that Shackleton would admit that of course he had not, Shackleton replied of course he had. “Optimism is the true moral courage,” he said, meaning that if you don’t believe in what you’re doing, you will fail, because you will not have the strength of mind or body to succeed.
Obama is an example of that optimism. Belief in our founding principles in the face of their distortion is true moral courage. Believing we can live up to our principles allows us to do so. From King to us, that is the message for all Americans.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 4 so far )
“I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”
This could have been Barack Obama’s opening line at the DNC on August 28, 2008, as he accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination to run for president. But it was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s opening line on August 28, 1963, as he addressed the Americans gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
That 1963 gathering was a “demonstration for freedom” because Americans of all backgrounds met to demand the fulfillment of our nation’s founding principles of freedom of opportunity and justice for all. The 2008 gathering was also a demonstration for freedom, because again Americans met to demand that our nation’s leaders respect and obey the Constitution and Bill of Rights when governing.
But it was also a demonstration of freedom, of the enormous progress this country has made since 1963. In that year, if you had said that in 45 years, within the lifetimes of most of the people there at the Lincoln Monument, a black American would be close to winning the presidency, you would have been ridiculed. Few could have believed that King’s three little children would live to see a black American close to becoming president (by narrowly beating out a heavily favored female candidate; throwing that in would have made people in 1963 wonder what parallel universe was coming). It wouldn’t have been cynicism or despair that fueled the disbelief, but a pragmatic understanding of how much would have to change to reach that moment.
So a lot has changed. But, more accurately, Americans have grown and evolved, challenged their own prejudices, and worked for change. It’s true that some Americans simply submitted to change, others grudgingly went along with change, and others refuse to change.
But even more miraculous than those who worked hard for change are those who were simply born into it. Americans born in 1990 find it hard to believe that restaurants were really segregated, that they wouldn’t have gone to schools filled with kids of all races, that mixed-race marriage was once illegal. Much as they can’t believe you once couldn’t talk about homosexuality, let alone have gay TV or movie heroes, American young people can’t believe racism was once government policy.
Are many young Americans still racist? Sure. But for most Americans, racism is becoming more and more a personal thing, a private prejudice that one might feel comfortable sharing only with a few others, or expressing obliquely. Like sexism, and homophobia, racism is becoming something fringe, that only a radical element is willing to pronounce publicly. Rather than having one’s racism comfortably mesh with a full personality, now if one is publicly racist, at the office or on the stump, one is labeled a wacko and marginalized.
Nineteen sixty-three was indeed not an end, but a beginning. Beating racism underground to a shameful lair in the soul is just the start. But we can celebrate our progress. Barack Obama’s nomination is a watershed we can act on to destroy racism. Children born in this year will find it hard to believe a black American had never been nominated by a major party for president until 2008, because by 2026 it will be a commonplace. Women, gay Americans, Jewish and Muslim Americans will all be able to become president. This is a moment to push more change, and it would be fatal, as Dr. King said, to overlook the urgency of the moment.
Does that sound ridiculous? As ridiculous as saying in 1963 that a black American would be the Democratic candidate for president in 2008?Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Someone somewhere has once again rolled out the old story of President Warren Harding (1921-23) having a great-grandfather who was black.
John McLaughlin apparently barged into the comments of a guest on his news show “The McLaughlin Group” who was expressing excitement about Barack Obama running for president by saying, sternly and loudly, “You act like there’s never been a black president before.” As the guest paused in confusion, McLaughlin shouted, “Warren Harding was a Negro!”
Why he chose to say “Negro” is unclear. Suffice it to say McLaughlin looked absolutely crazy when he said it. But the saddest thing about his comment is that now people will once again pointlessly debate whether one of Harding’s great-grandfathers was black (something that should be pretty easy to prove or disprove).
I find this at once sad and hilarious because it gets all of us 21st century modernites talking and thinking like 19th century quack doctors. Grown, modern American adults start talking about what “percent” black blood Harding may have had, what “percent” of black blood makes you black, etc.
While you can have percentages of ancestors (for example, one can say “50% of my ancestors were black, 20% were Chinese, and 30% were white”), you cannot have a percentage of blood. The blood in a body is not 50% or 10% or 1% anything but blood.
It’s also sad and hilarious, but more sad, that Barack Obama, whose father was black, is not considered black by some Americans, while Harding, who may or may not have had one multiracial great-grandfather, is considered black therefore by some Americans.
What we all are is 100% American, and presidents should be judged on how well they uphold our founding principles, and nothing else.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 8 so far )
I’m going out on a limb here to state the obvious.
Let’s read it: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
A well-regulated Militia. Not a well-armed citizen.
This Amendment is clearly meant to protect the right of the citizen to own a gun to use in military service. You keep your Arms so that you can serve in the Militia. This was written when the main form of defense was state and local militias, for which you needed your own gun.
Now, I’m not a strict-interpretation-of-the-Constitution person. I believe it is flexible and can be read in new ways. But this Amendment seems so clearly to be about protecting a volunteer military—to be about military service—that to extend it to people who want to be able to carry guns into a bar or a supermarket, or keep them in their glovebox, is clearly untenable.
The Second Amendment does NOT encourage or demand that average citizens keep guns in their homes for any reason. It does not mention hunting. It does not mention personal defense. It is strictly about maintaining a national army.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 18 so far )