The voice behind me, as I walked through the streets of Brownsville yesterday, said, “Mister, do you have any work?”
I was a white man again in a neighborhood where I lived as a token for 15 years, starting in 1968, fresh from Grant Park in Chicago, where the revolution that ended at midnight this Tuesday began four decades earlier with bloody batons.
I was on my way to the election precinct where I voted for the second half of my life in Brownsville, then the city’s poorest community district.
I was coming home, where my son was born, on a day when Brownsville, once described in the New York Times as “the deathknell of our civilization,” was about to officially become just another American town.
Barack Obama did that. He did it on the shoulders of so many I knew in Brownsville who pushed us as a nation towards this day.
I have written for the Voice for 31 years and I’ve almost never written in the first person. But today, Obama has pushed my own life onto a keyboard that prefers to type news. I was raised in Lynchburg, Virginia, where much of my family still lives and where I got my first newspaper job in 1963. The former U.S. Senator from Virginia, Carter Glass, owned both newspapers in Lynchburg and I grew up delivering the morning paper on my bike to the homes of his two grandsons, who actually ran the family publishing business.
One of them, Tom Glass, tore up a story I wrote in my first week about a 4-H club hog show after asking me if it was a colored or a white hog show and discovering it was a colored show.
Black births, weddings, and deaths never appeared in Lynchburg’s only papers, though half its population was black. A notice in the photo lab barred the publication of any integrated photos unless it was a shot of a white cop making an arrest.
Lynchburg voted 7 to 1 for Barry Goldwater in 1964. Last night, it split almost evenly between Obama and McCain.
I went from Lynchburg to Brownsville — with just college and grad school in between — a journey through the 1960s that was strangely seamless. Grant Park, with cops on motorcycles charging a crowd of convention protestors, was one of the steps in that transition, as was a night with Bobby Kennedy in Gary, when King was shot. Many in my generation crossed the same street, shoved by forces that in a single year, precisely 40 years ago, transformed us as suddenly, and irrevocably, as 2008 has reshaped us again.
Until now, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have been the only presidential boomers, a rebuke of our movement. Though Obama does not fit the demographic, he is, in fact, the first son of our generation to go to the White House; the first authentic presidential product of our struggle.
Not that I understood that.
I voted for Obama Super Tuesday even though I did not believe he could win in November. I thought Hillary was a safer bet at a time when America could not survive another Republican. As late as election eve, I feared an illegal aunt could kill his candidacy. I trusted more in the Virginia of my memory than the Virginia of today. I had more confidence in swift boats than in smart voters.
And I was too far away from my Brownsville roots. Walking through Brownsville at the dawn of a new era, I saw how much better it is now than when I lived there –its housing stock, its commercial strips, even its proud pace. Yet still, there are those along that Brownsville street who cry out for a paycheck. I also saw a woman standing on a sidewalk with a foot-long portrait of Obama in her hand and remembered a driving rain in Omaha with Bobby Kennedy in an open convertible and black women running at him clutching portraits of Jack. I recognized the continuity of struggle in my own lifetime, I heard the mountaintop echoes of King so eerily from behind Obama’s bullet-proof glass, I witnessed the passage of accumulated experience from generation to generation, and I saw, using Obama’s rear view mirror, how steady the road behind you can look when you know where you want to go.