AN AMERICAN DREAM
...President-Elect of the U.S.
Obama offers the hope
missing since JFK died
By RON MILLER
When U.S. President-elect Barack Obama stepped to the microphone last week to address a cheering crowd of more than 100,000 in Chicago's Grant Park. the roving TV cameras captured the essence of how important this moment was to America.
Thousands of white and black Americans of all ages had assembled there, many of them with arms locked together in friendship, expressing their mutual delight as clearly as can be. They were sharing a historic moment for both races, a moment many of us thought never would come.
This, I thought to myself, has to be the salvation of our nation: The races united at last in their support for a charismatic leader who has come out of nowhere to lead us into a promising new future. The fact that Barack Obama is half white and half black seems symbolic of the plan he has to coalesce the races into a single force to carry America in a new direction, united as never before.
Watching this historic event was an extremely emotional experience for me, as I'm sure it was for millions of others of my generation. I first voted for a U.S. president in 1960, a time when a great many black Americans were not yet permitted to vote because of racist state laws in the American south. It seems tremendously encouraging to me that America finally has reached the point where there are enough fair-minded voters to actually bring about a huge election victory for the man who will become the first African-American President of the United States.
For me, a white man in his late 60s, this is the fulfillment of my most fervent prayer for America. I have hoped for racial equality ever since I cast my first ballot for an American president and helped put John F. Kennedy in the White House.
Jack Kennedy inspired me and millions of young people who had never seen a young and energetic American president, especially not one with a stylish and handsome wife and little kids in the White House. JFK wanted all the things we wanted: An end to the Cold War and a way to bring America's many races and ethnic groups together for a common cause--making life better for all. It didn't hurt that he liked the arts, sports and good books, too.
I suspect Barack Obama will be the JFK of his generation, an exciting individual who will rally the youth of America to help him remake this nation that's been in the grip of selfish, mean-spirited men way too long.
On the morning after last week's election, I was talking with a young friend--an intelligent young lady of 21 who had just voted in her first presidential election. Though she was clearly aware of the historic nature of Obama's victory, I could tell that it had nowhere near the emotional impact on her that it had on me. Born in the late 1980s, she grew up in a rural community in Washington state where very few African-Americans live. Home-schooled, she had no exposure to campus racial conflicts. Her church-going parents had raised her to never discriminate on the basis of race, but had not "made an issue of race." My friend knows about the Civil Rights struggle, of course, but has no visceral feelings about it because it never touched her life in any meaningful or personal way.
As much as I admire and respect this young woman, I knew I couldn't explain over coffee why tears came into my eyes as I watched Barack Obama become our president-elect. She had seen The Rev. Jesse Jackson wiping tears from his eyes in that Chicago crowd on TV and I'm sure she basically understood why a black man who had marched with Dr. Martin Luther King might be overcome with emotion. But I supposed she might wonder why a middleaged white man would feel that way.
I don't know that I had ever examined my own life in sufficient detail to know that answer myself. All I know for sure is that I've been committed to equality for everyone for as long as I can remember. It is so instinctive to me that my reactions are purely automatic.
I really don't know where my attitudes about race originated, but I know I grew up without fear or hatred of people of different races or religions. As a matter of fact, I grew up with intense curiousity about people who weren't like me and often went out of my way to get to know them better. That curiousity has led me to some enduring friendships that began in my school days when I gravitated to kids who weren't exactly like me.
My parents surely gave me most of my underlying attitudes about what's right and what's wrong, but I'm glad I didn't pick up some of their less than wholesome notions about race or the way they expressed themselves on the topic.
My father was a truck driver who often told jokes about black people and occasionally used terms to describe them that would not fly today. He and the men he knew in his line of work cracked jokes about anybody, not just black people, and even ribbed each other about their religions or whatever. As an adult, I was able to look back and see that my dad had accepted a lot of myths about black people that weren't true and used words he thought were socially acceptable to describe them. A black athlete, for instance, was always a "colored boy" to him. He had picked up such expressions, I'm sure, from the people he associated with in his strata of society. Fortunately, he never used the "N" word or I might have grown up thinking that was socially acceptable, like so many southern youths did.
Dad spent a lot of time in truck stops in Salinas and other central California farm towns. Some of his pals were the same "Okies" John Steinbeck had written about in "The Grapes of Wrath." He respected them for the hard work they had taken on to rebuild their families after losing everything in the disastrous Dust Bowl times of the 1930s. I sincerely believe he would have liked black men of the same social strata if he'd ever really met any. He always stuck up for people who were in trouble and was widely known for helping stranded motorists on the highway and never taking any payments for it. But, like many white Americans in his part of rural California in the 1930s and 1940s, he seldom had any contact with black people in the natural course of his life, so his attitudes about them probably were formed by what he learned from others.
My mother had some racial prejudices, which I think probably came from her ignorance about other people. For instance, I remember her once telling me that a certain black actress was actually quite pretty "for a Negro." When I told her I thought the lady was quite pretty "for a white person or any race," I think she realized how awful what she had said had sounded to me.
But that prejudice is one that I am certain was common among black women, too, at one point in our nation's hisitory. Our white-run media seldom showed us any black women who weren't fat and hanky-headed. I grew up with no real idea of what a black family actually looked like. For that reason, I suppose it was logical for many black women to grow up thinking they were not as attractive as white women and that's why they didn't see women like themselves in advertisements or in the movies.
But one of the most significant slogans of the Civil Rights Era was the "black is beautiful" mantra. It came along at a time when the media finally were loosening up and starting to show us black men and women as potential role models. I'm guessing if you kept repeating that "black is beautiful" phrase often enough, it would start to make sense and you might suddenly realize the African-American women you finally were starting to see in magazines and in TV commercials really were beautiful after all.
One event involving my mother stands out in my childhood memories. She had become a state-wide officer in the California Parent-Teachers Assn. and, while preparing to attend a PTA convention in Southern California, she complained that nobody would share a room with the one black delegate from her district. Mom was able to immediately put herself in the position of this delegate, who was about to be terribly humiliated because no white woman would room with her. Mom solved the problem by rooming with the woman herself--and discovering that she really liked the lady.
I don't consider my mother any kind of civil rights hero for doing that--nor did she tell the rest of the family that story iin order to build herself up. I think she was genuinely shocked that other white women could be so cruel to another PTA mother, regardless of her race. I think it ticked her off because she felt it might reflect poorly on her leadership in the district. Whatever reason, she did the right thing.
Still, I don't really remember any time when either my mother or father sat me down and taught me anything about how to relate to black people. I never picked up any of their negative attitudes--for instance, their dislike of "militants"--nor their politically incorrect expressions. But maybe that's because I didn't like the sound of such things and didn't want to have my classmates hear me talking like that.
I'm more inclined to think my notions about race came from my reading--and from my exposure to movies that portrayed black people warmly, if not always respectfully.
I was a precocious early reader, so I think I must have absorbed lots of good lessons about civil rights from the books I read. Mom had a copy of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" by Harriet Beecher Stowe, tattered and soiled by its many readings, that I devoured as a sixth grader--and bawled like a baby over. In high school, I read Faulkner's "Intruder in the Dust," another great novel that made me aware of the injustices that whites had inflicted upon blacks. And, when I read "Huckleberry Finn" by Samuel Clemens, I came out of it thinking the slave Jim was a good character because Clemens made you see him as a man, not just a victim of Jim Crow racism. These books were NOT required reading in any school I attended before college. In fact, I don't recall any serious attempt to teach racial tolerance in those classes I took before the Civil Rights Era.
Another movie that turned me into a honking crybaby was the original "Imitation of Life" (1934), in which white Claudette Colbert and black Louise Beavers become business partners in the terrible Great Depression. Poverty brought them together. Working hard together and sharing what they had made them intimate friends for life. When Beavers' light-skinned daughter "passes" for white and rejects her own mother to protect her new "white" identity, I blubbered shamelessly at her poor mother's shame. But when the daughter throws herself on her mother's coffin, finally realizing she has lost the one person who really loved her, I joined the legion of noisily sobbing women all around me, making a total public disgrace of myself.
"I don't get it," one of my dry-eyed juvenile pals told me, rather scornfully. "She was only a Negro."
Once I heard that remark, I guess I began to understand the fundamental difficulty black people were going to have winning true equality in American society. I remember one "friend" giving me a bad time because I really liked Nat "King" Cole records and wished I could sing like him. My "pal" couldn't imagine any white guy wanting to do anything like a black person.
In the late 1940s, after Pres. Harry S. Truman had integrated the Armed Forces and the first cautious steps toward civil rights were being taken in post-war America, movies began to emerge that actually dealt with racism. I was knocked out by "Home of the Brave" (1949), which dealt with a black G.I. (James Edwards) in mental stress over racism shown toward him by white G.I.'s, and "No Way Out" (1950), the film that introduced Sidney Poitier as a black doctor forced to treat a white racist (Richard Widmark) in an urban emeregency room, I was drawn to such "problem" pictures and they began to re-educate me just as I started to reach adulthood.
By the time I entered college in the fall of 1956, I had already determined that I wanted to ally myself with those who wanted to bring about racial equality in America. I had never had a black friend, but finally was able to associate with some young African-American men of my age while hanging out with other student journalists who shared my outlook on race.
I was writing feature stories for the campus newspaper and used that as a way to get to know people I'd never probably have met in the normal course of events. I did a series of articles on what blacks were doing to combat racism and linked up with people in the local chapter of the NAACP, who invited me into their homes. I got to know a promising young black singer who was part of a group that had a hit record on the regional r&b charts and did a story on him. And so on.
I didn't know it at the time, but that special interest of mine in college would grow and grow and lead me into some of the proudest moments of my professional career, including memorable meetings with some of the greatest African-American entertainers of our time, I grew up idolizing Sidney Poitier and wishing I could play the piano like my idol, Errol Garner. If the fact they were black men had any impact on me, I guess it maybe made them even more intriguing.
In the days of TV's "Roots," that magnificent TV movie "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," the feature film "Sounder" and so many other efforts to illuminate the lives of African-Americans, my absorption in the topic and my status as a syndicated columnist gave me unprecedented access to so many top creative talents who happened to be African-Americans. I will always treasure my meetings with the likes of Sidney Poitier, Cicely Tyson, Diahann Carroll, Brock Peters, Louis Gossett, Halle Berry, Denzel Washington and so many others.
During my generation, I've always felt that I shared the aspirations of those involved in the struggle for civil rights. After all, they were MY civil rights, too. I wanted to live in a country where men could determine their own government and I hated the idea that evil white men who had nothing to do with me had for generations barred millions of black people from doing just that.
The civil rights era really had begun for me in my first year of college when a small group of black children of Little Rock, Ark., integrated an all-white high school and Republican Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered the National Guard to Little Rock to make sure it happened without violence.
I was a campus journalist then and wrote an editorial for the student newspaper about that event. My editorial was judged "best in the state," bringing me my first acclaim for anything I'd ever written. That award probably helped convince me I'd chosen the right line of work--and it also assured me it also was the role I was born to play in the coming cycle of dramatic events of the Civil Rights Era.
JFK was the first U.S. President I voted for in my first national election as a member of the voting public. That was in 1960 and I was in my senior year of college. My roommates and I gathered around the battered old black and white TV we shared and watched the debates between Kennedy and Richard Nixon, his GOP opponent, rooting for the dashing young Catholic senator with the stylish wavy hair and against the glowering, beetle-browed Nixon, who sweated and looked like he had serious 5 o'clock shadow.
Kennedy had made the civil rights movement one of his most cherished goals and he started things going before his untimely death and his successor, Lyndon Johnson, finally got all the laws passed that JFK had hoped to see in his lifetime. My friends and I were totally committed to these changes in our society, all of them necessary to bring about equal treatment of the races.
Martin Luther King became a hero to me as he did to all the black families I knew. When he was assassinated, I wept uncontrollably and my very liberal editor of those days sent me on assignment to attend and write about a memorial service for Dr. King at a black church in the largely African-American community of East Palo Alto in what is now known as Silicon Valley.
At the church, I found scores of other white people--some of them mighty important names in government on the San Francisco Peninsula--locking arms with black people to share their grief at this national tragedy. My heart soared at the sight of all of us together and I was greeted warmly and with thanks by all these black strangers, even though I'm sure we all knew that a white assassin probably was behind it.
Right now I feel that the civil rights goals that Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson set for America, are still a long way from being reached. I am a realist. I know Barack Obama will not have a cakewalk when he takes the reins of our government next January. He seems bright, has a steady eye and seems capable of soothing troubled waters. But even if he's a genius, the problems he faces cannot be solved by intellect alone. He needs to continue rallying the best and the brightest, using his skill as a persuader to get his Democratic and Republican colleagues to finally start working together while energizing the youth movement he has started in American politics to keep the pressure on our legislators to do the right thing for America.
But I am thrilled beyond measure that such a man has come forth to take the leadership in not only the final sprint to equality for African-Americans, but to take the reins of the government upon which Americans of all races must depend. He is my president and my hero, too, and the joy I feel is that millions upon millions of other white people surely feel the same way today.
©2008 by Ron Miller. This column first posted Nov. 10, 2008.
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