Wouldn't it have been something to have been able to bring Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. back Nov. 4, and have sat them down, invisible, in Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church?
Imagine sitting them in front of the two giant TV screens the church had put up for this night, a night most of the people there never dreamed they'd see. They remembered, some of them, not being allowed to vote. At least one of them, John Lewis, once had his skull fractured for fighting for the right to vote. These days, he is the congressman from the Atlanta district in which Daddy King's old church sits.
Still, many of those who packed this church had reason to believe their votes, once they won that right, sometimes had been made meaningless in the past. Sure, they knew what the polls said.
But they couldn't allow themselves to believe, even now, that this was happening, because if they did believe and it was taken away from them, it would hurt too much to bear.
And, yes, they had done their best to take it away once again. They had called him a socialist, a secret Muslim radical, a man "we really don't know anything about." To his credit, John McCain didn't try to smear him with the extreme statements of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. But other groups did, in endless commercials.
What the Republican standard bearers did do was say he hung out with bomb-throwing terrorists. There were whispers that his wife, a Harvard-trained lawyer and a mom to two adorable little girls, was "one of those nasty black women with an agenda."
Sarah Palin, the self-proclaimed pit bull in lipstick, had done all she could to raise the race card, winking and shrilly sneering that he was "not a man who saw America as you and I see America." The folks in Ebenezer last week knew stuff like that had worked so many times before. But not this time. Not this night.
"Pennsylvania for Obama ... Ohio for Obama ... Florida for Obama," the CNN announcers intoned. Then, at precisely 11 p.m., it was all over. Wolf Blitzer, looking a little stunned, proclaimed the obvious: Barack Obama was the next president of the United States.
Barack Hussein Obama, son of a black man from Kenya and a white girl from Kansas, had been elected president of the United States. Not only did they not steal it, it wasn't even close. Obama won by more than 8 million votes. When he was born, his parents' marriage would have been illegal in Virginia. Last week, he won Virginia by a bigger margin than he won Ohio.
Though there are still millions of provisional and absentee ballots left to count, Obama has, as I write this, already piled up far more votes than anyone in American history. Forty million-plus white people voted for him. He won a majority of white voters in Michigan. He won Macomb County. He won Grand Rapids. He kicked butt without getting his shirt dirty.
When he came on that stage in Grant Park, tens of millions of people began to cry, some of whom didn't even vote for him. I thought to myself that a species of American had become extinct the moment California put him over the top. No, not the racists. We'd still have them. What we wouldn't have was the children who had to learn that they could not be anything they wanted to be, that they couldn't dream too big or hope too much. Coleman Young once wrote that while he was proud to have been elected Detroit's first black mayor, he figured he only got the job because most white people "didn't want the goddamn [city] anymore." Barack Obama got the job in spite of the fact that tons of more experienced white politicians wanted it, very badly.
He got it because he was, simply, the best there was. He beat them, fair and square, in the primaries, in the general election. He won, too, because of the growing realization that the nation is in bad shape, after eight years of the worst presidency in history. In the eyes of the world, America was perhaps at its lowest point in history when this year began. We took a giant step toward changing that and changing our image on Nov. 4, 2008.
Michigan redeemed itself too. The Roman Catholic Church, an institution that produced St. Francis and Mother Teresa, disgraced and shamed itself by spending millions to spread lies about Proposal 2, which legalized embryonic stem cell research. The priests of this tax-exempt, supposedly nonpolitical institution told their parishioners from the pulpit how they should vote. Fortunately, many of them did not listen. The public was not hoodwinked, and embryonic stem cell research easily passed.
Four years after he broke his pledge to the voters to retire, Old Joe Knollenberg was retired. Timmy Walberg, the former Bible salesman turned joke of a congressman from a west Michigan district, was mercifully terminated too. Voters impatiently turned down a silly request to recall Speaker of the House Andy Dillon.
In response to the Republican whining that Democrats had voted for a tax increase (never mind that it was necessary to save the state), Michigan gave the Dems nine more seats in the Legislature. They will now control the House 67-43, accomplishing this despite boundaries the Republicans drew to supposedly assure themselves a majority. Sadly, the Senate wasn't up for election.
We are going to be facing difficult times in the next few years. Chrysler won't be here in its present form much longer. The very survival of General Motors is in doubt. Michigan's future — actually, our chance to have a future — hinges on decisions that will be made in the next few months.
There are those who say that the nation should stick a fork in us, put a tag on our toe. That we can never recover. We can accept that, or we can make up our minds to believe and do what that skinny black guy says. The one who just carried this state by almost 1 million votes.
Yes, we can.
Poor sports department: You can't deny that John McCain was gracious when he conceded defeat. Many of his followers, however, have worked hard at living down to all our expectations, starting from the moment they booed nastily when McCain congratulated the president-elect. Since then, I have had phone messages and e-mails from a host of nuts who predict the end of life as we know it.
The funniest was a woman with a Southern accent who feared we might lose "the honest, decent and Christian government we've had for the last eight years." Perhaps she lives in Manitoba.
Ken Hreha, a writer in Dryden who struggles to make ends meet, tells me he knows of a woman who was apoplectic with rage about the Obama victory. This woman, he says, has a sailboat, a $400,000 home in Shelby Township, and land in North Carolina. Nevertheless, she just knows that our new president will "take care of all them black people and give them all the welfare they need."
Meanwhile, she fears she'll "have to wait in line for a doctor." Where, pray tell, does our modern-day Marie Antoinette work? For a public school system in a city where most of the residents are black. Naturally, I plan to spend the night crying for her.Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]