I confess that while the election and inauguration of Barack Obama has taken place, I am only cautiously optimistic that our country will seize upon this opportunity to move toward the reconciliation that I firmly believe is within our grasp.
It is not that I doubt that this moment in history is poised to experience reconciliation. It is only that America has come close to moments of racial reconciliation before, and in each instance the nation found a way or a reason to turn away from that opportunity.
In 1870 the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted, giving the right to vote to a group that slightly more than five years earlier had been living in lifelong slavery, with no notion of their even being treated as human beings. It was possible in 1870 for this nation to say to itself that a great civil war had been fought. Slavery was now over, and America could have gotten on with the business of living up to the ideals of Jefferson from 1776 – “all men are created equal.”
We could have avoided so much suffering, so many lynchings, so many beatings and so much brutality if we had only embraced that first opportunity for national, racial reconciliation. However, in 1870 America was not yet ready to end its affinity for being two nations, one white and one black, separate and unequal; so the problem continued.
In every American military conflict from the Revolutionary War to the present conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands of black men and women served in uniform in the armed forces. One would have thought that military service would quickly result in the chance to enjoy the liberty and freedom and democracy for which those men and women had risked their lives.
However, they returned from the front lines of a foreign war only to end up sitting in the back of the bus when it came to a seat, or standing in the back of the line when it came to finding a job, or hanging at the end of a rope when their call for freedom seemed too brash for many in white America. We came close to the opportunity to turn a corner in this country, but we were still determined to be two nations, one white and one black, separate and unequal.
We had another chance in 1965 when Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. The nation could have said that our long fascination with racial inequality was now over and it was time to get on with the business of being “one nation under God.”
However, when President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, a staunch segregationist told Johnson that his actions would result in the southern states leaving the Democratic Party for the next 100 years. By 1968, every southern state – and all of them had voted democratic since the Civil War – joined Nixon and the Republican Party. For the next 40 years, conservative politics and conservative pundits held sway in this country.
Now we are confronted with this unexpected opportunity to do something that we should have done, but refused to do many times in the past. Now we have a chance to be reconciled. The signs of this potential reconciliation were embedded within Obama’s campaign structure and strategy.
It was thrilling to see young, white people volunteering to work for this African-American candidate for president. It was amazing, almost unbelievable, to drive through all-white neighborhoods in my historically “red state” of Ohio and see Obama/Biden signs in the front yards.
Nevertheless, the power of hatred and prejudice is strong and some people were not able to bring themselves to cast a vote for Obama based solely upon the color of his skin. In my opinion, the color of Obama’s skin was the only reason why that election was close.
Given a bad economy, a costly and unpopular war, and a Republican president with the lowest approval ratings of any president in the last 100 years, one was left to wonder why it was that Obama did not lead his Republican opponent by 15 to 20 points as they went into Election Day.
The election of Barack Obama is not only about the possibilities of our future; it is also about outgrowing and moving beyond the self-imposed limitations of our past. When America voted for a black man to be its president, it was bigger than politics; it was a transformational moment in national history.
This country and this world will never be the same if we are willing and able to embrace the possibility of racial reconciliation that God has set before us.
Marvin A. McMickle is senior pastor at Antioch Baptist Church in Cleveland and professor of homiletics at Ashland Theological Seminary in Ohio. He worked on The Audacity of Faith while serving as visiting professor of homiletics at Yale Divinity School. This column is an excerpt from The Audacity of Faith: Christian Leaders Reflect on the Election of Barack Obama, which is available at Judson Press.