Monday, June 09, 2008

Sea Change

American elections

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange. - Shakespeare

Shakespeare usually said it best – and said if first. Barack Obama's nomination as the Democratic candidate for President fits Ol Will's description of a sea-change exactly.

The papers are full of the historic nature of his victory and it's hard to improve on their analysis. How he galvanised a legion of new supporters to the Democratic party and overcame the Clinton's political muscle will be etched deeply in the “Practical Guide to Becoming President”.

The sea change is something different. It is something most Americans of my generation never thought to see -a black candidate for President. We are the generation that saw Mississippi burning, saw Martin Luther Kind gunned down, saw black men destroying Watts, saw racial prejudice as an enduring legacy and an immutable constant.

We marvelled at the talent that brought Jackie Robinson to the Dodgers; we applauded (sometimes secretly) the explosion of talent that is Motown music, we all knew a “token” black, but we didn't want to live with them or invite them to our bbq.

In 1951 I stated school in Chicago. Blacks were beginning to move into the neighbourhood and whites didn't like it. Therefore, we all went to the local Catholic school. All white kids that is – all the blacks went to the local public school. Everyone knew this and accepted it. We had more Jewish white kids at St Ambrose than any other demographic group. The nuns would go mad on Yom Kippur – none of the Jew came to school.

I was into the eighth grade before a black was in my school. At High School we had a grand total of eight black kids out of three thousand students. Everyone was their friend. No-one invited them to their parties. The idea of inter-racial dating was so shocking that it was impossible to contemplate.

Then cam e Viet Nam. I trained with 200 men – 75% black. Blacks accounted for casualties about in the same proportion as their percentage of the population – 12.5 %. White casualties were significantly lower. Fact replaces legend. The white man's war was fought by blacks, and they knew it.

So, is it any wonder that the era of Black Power followed? Fed up with the war; fed up with inequality; fed up with Mississippi; black people looked to the government to change things and they got Lyndon Johnson.

Poor old LBJ gets a bad press and he deserves it. The war was his, but the Civil Rights Bill was also his. LBJ was obsessed with carrying on Kennedy's legislative program and to his credit he did. So, a hundred years after the Constitution guaranteed fundamental rights to those who had been in “ a previous condition of servitude”, LBJ made sure that the words were matched with action to eliminate the cosy political relationships in the South (and in the North as well) which ensured that blacks were effectively excluded from the political process.

LBJ is directly responsible for Barack. Or, Barack is directly indebted to LBJ. Either way old LBJ should get some of the credit.

It took thirty years, but it happened. Black men and women are seen in new roles. In the media, in sports, in politics, blacks are empowered by the successes and trials of a generation and can now even hope for a black man to be President.

Truly a sea-change.

Miracles do happen.

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