On Thursday night, 45 years to the day from the historic March on Washington, Barack Obama will receive the Democratic nomination for the presidency. “Judge me by the content of my character, not the color of my skin,” say t-shirts on sale on the streets around the convention center. 45 years later, we have come a long way.
Thursday night is the triumph of those who too often are forgotten—the ordinary men and women who decided to make their own history, and helped to redeem a nation. The marchers at Selma, the freedom riders, those who sat in at lunch counters, or struggled through a Mississippi summer were, for the most part, not the prominent ministers, or the business leaders, or the successful professionals. They were the sanitation worker, the student, the cleaning lady, the secretary. They put their lives and their livelihood at risk, and, against the greatest odds, followed their hopes, not their fears. Many paid a fearsome price—beaten, jailed, fired, some murdered. Their sacrifice helped to make America whole. Barack Obama stands on their heroic shoulders.
That Civil Rights Agenda was never a Black agenda alone; it was an agenda for America. Lincoln understood that the nation could not survive half-slave and half-free. King and Johnson understood that the South could not prosper if the energy of the majority was squandered on holding down its largest minority. Equal opportunity for all protects not only the rights of African Americans, but of women, and Latinos and gays and other minorities. And with progress in civil rights, America’s diversity started to become its strength, not its weakness—as is so clearly exhibited in the young generation now coming onto the national stage.
This reality forms the base of the Obama coalition—working people, Blacks and Latinos and Asian Americans, young people, women. And it informs the nature of his agenda: a call to rebuild America, to put people first, to move to policies that will make this economy work for the many, not simply the few.
Some worry that with Obama’s success, concern about civil rights, about racial discrimination will diminish, that those who have been left behind will be further isolated. That the country will view the journey towards equal opportunity completed.
But Obama’s candidacy will in itself advance the dialogue about race in this country. And we must challenge the assumption that the Black agenda—for equal opportunity, for lifting the poor, educating the children, providing health care for the sick—is somehow a special interest agenda. As has been always true, it is America’s agenda.
The next president faces truly forbidding challenges. The worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. A broken health care system. Eight years of “recovery” in which most Americans lost ground. Record housing foreclosures, with falling prices erasing the largest investment most Americans have. Good jobs shipped abroad, while new jobs lack health care, pensions or living wages.
America is now the world’s largest debtor, increasingly dependent on foreign oil and foreign loans. A trillion dollar occupation of Iraq has left America more isolated and less respected than ever. Cities are increasingly divided into rich and poor, with collapsing infrastructure, overcrowded schools, and brutal systems of criminal injustice that are kindling for an explosion.
This crisis cannot be met with more of the same policies. We need fundamental changes—a new strategy for the global economy, a concerted drive for sustainable energy independence, investment in rebuilding America and in educating our children, measures to empower workers and hold corporations and banks accountable, a new urban agenda. This won’t get done with a fake populist garb donned for the ads of a political campaign. It will require challenging vested interests, changing old ways.
And here Barack Obama once more reflects the experience of those marchers a half century ago. No leader alone can get this done. It will require ordinary people mobilizing to challenge those that stand in the way. The McCain campaign mocks Obama’s ability to inspire people here and abroad. It presents McCain as a lone hero, able to act alone. But change doesn’t work that way. Change only comes as ordinary people chose to act in extraordinary ways. That takes inspiration, hope, and leadership that can lift people up. Obama understands what Dr. King knew forty-five years ago. A leader can inspire, but the choices that ordinary people make will determine whether we can once more redeem this nation.
Reverend Jackson n can be contacted by e-mail at