Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The wonder of the Obama odyssey


My generation can genuinely marvel at the extraordinary prospect of a young black man becoming president of the United States of America.

This tops any historic moment of my life—FDR's rescue of Americans from the Depression, the attack on Pearl Harbor, the atomic bomb, V-E or V-J days, the moon landing.

Children of the 1930s remember blacks being treated little better than their slave forefathers, clumped into substandard "colored" housing, largely restricted to menial jobs, called "boy" or "girl" or worse to their faces, usually denied a place in elections.

As a child, I saw white-hooded members of the KKK rallying around a burning cross in an empty lot near my Florida home. As a teen attending school in small-town Barnesville, Ga., the Confederate flag was everywhere, as were clusters of old-timers gathering in the city's downtown park on Sunday bemoaning the loss of the War Between the States and still arguing for secession of the South.

Many Southerners weren't insensitive. In those times, however, there was little they could do to change the racial culture. My obviously "liberal" parents (both country-bred North Carolinians) had longtime respectful bonds with blacks. My brother and I were entrusted to a black woman who virtually raised us while our mother worked full-time in an office to make ends meet. Sarah was never allowed to take the exhausting, long bus ride to and from her distant home; my father or mother always drove her. When Sarah and her husband late in life were too ill to support themselves, my parents paid their mortgage and cared for them until their deaths.

Newspapers rarely published stories involving blacks, unless about crime. Black lawyers and physicians were rare. Black theater and film celebrated black entertainers. But mainstream Hollywood limited blacks to demeaning Step 'n' Fetchit, "Yassa, masta' " roles.

Manpower demands of World War II, then the GI Bill that opened colleges, President Truman's desegregation of the armed forces, plus the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown vs Board of Education desegregation order began the tidal wave of change that led to the Martin Luther King Jr. phenomenon and destruction of racial barriers.

Black Americans have entry everywhere—as media titans, Wall Street tycoons, college presidents, space shuttle commanders, airline pilots, judgeships, elected positions from city hall to Capitol Hill, top-rung medical specialties and starring film roles. Interracial romances and marriages that once could've led to mob revenge are commonplace.

The Barack Obama phenomenon has another meaning: It hastens the day when racial discrimination and discord will be just a bad memory.

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