Reason for hope

Forty-five years ago this August, a man named Martin Luther King Jr. gave a remarkable speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Most people think of it as the "I have a dream" speech, and have read or seen brief snatches of it. Everybody today knows that it was a very important speech, and it was.

But they don't usually tell you that perhaps the biggest reason it was important was that it was the first speech by a black man that white Americans paid much attention to. It now seems almost certain that there will be another such speech this Aug. 28, the exact anniversary of that one. While the new speech may not be as eloquent as the "dream" speech, this much is certain:

A vastly larger audience of white — and black — Americans will be listening. That's because the speaker will be Barack Obama, and — barring an unforeseen, shocking development — he will be accepting the Democratic nomination for president of the United States. My guess is that MLK never imagined such a thing could happen, especially not in what could still have been his lifetime. Hard to believe, perhaps, but Dr. King would be a mere 79 years old today, and undoubtedly would be there in Denver this summer, if it wasn't for the bullet he caught.

He wouldn't have been surprised by the bullet. However, if somebody had told him in 1963 that a mulatto toddler in Hawaii with an African name would someday be president, he would have had them dragged off and committed. Obama was 3 years old when the bodies of three college kids were pulled from under a dam in Mississippi; they had been murdered for the horrendous crime of trying to register American citizens to vote. He was 6 when the bullet blew away Martin Luther King's jaw, and life.

Things have changed more than anyone ever thought possible. True, in other ways they haven't changed nearly enough. In what they used to call the inner city, life may in many ways be worse than in 1963.

But now there is a sense of possibility, of hope, of something changing the dreariness. I see this in my students. Naturally, you would expect them to be gung-ho for Obama. Where I really see it, though, is in all sorts of unexpected places. The beaten-down and cranky elderly woman in the pet shop in Warren, for example; were this 1968, I am convinced she'd be for George Wallace.

"Me? The only one I can stand is Obama. He's the only one telling the truth," she told me, as she rang up my dog food. Or this letter I got last week:

"I like Obama because I truly believe that he can change the world. It's no secret that the rest of the world basically hates the United States, and we need a president that can begin to repair the damage the 'Shrub' has been responsible for." Sound like someone from Amnesty International? Not hardly; the writer, Charles Missig, is a Macomb County sheriff's deputy.

That doesn't mean the fall election is going to be easy. Here's an unpleasant and inconvenient truth: Were John Edwards, say, the nominee, this election wouldn't even be in doubt. The Republican Party's standing is lower than a snake's belly, thanks mainly to the abject embarrassment from Crawford, Texas.

But racism and fear of the "other" is still rampant in this nation. The Washington Post did a story recently about what canvassers and campaign workers for Obama had encountered, including a union organizer who said he would never vote for a black person, and a local mayor who said he feared "there is so much that people don't know about his upbringing in the Muslim world."

I have little doubt that Barack Obama could defeat George W. Bush. (On the other hand, so could my pet guinea pig.) But, to many people, John McCain may seem like a compromise. He feels more moderate and, while old as hell, doesn't sound like a moron when he talks. Flying to Texas last weekend, I sat next to a pleasant, middle-age doctor's wife from East Lansing. She didn't like Bush, but was voting for McCain. She said she felt comfortable with him, and thought it would be a nice balance since she felt that Congress was apt to be Democratic.

She wasn't a bad person or a stupid one or a racist; just someone who never had anything go seriously wrong in her life. Folks like that are usually reluctant to take a chance on change. Here's something I'd bet my life on: A majority of white voters in this country will vote for John McCain. But that isn't as bad as it sounds. A majority of white voters always vote Republican for president. Democrats have gotten a majority of them only once since 1944!

Yet many, many millions of them have already voted for Obama this year. The candidate himself says it isn't about race, but a question of "can we get a majority of the American people to give us a fair hearing?" My guess is that, to paraphrase his campaign slogan, yes, he can. Think of what he has done so far:

This guy was a black freshman senator with a funny name who had the audacity to challenge the most famous name in the country for the nomination. He won a landslide in Oregon last week, where there are few African-Americans and where even the Kennedys failed to win primaries and general elections.

If it comes down to the economy, as it should, and the war, there ought to be a lot of people who may not be crazy about helping blacks, but who are desperate for something different in this country. Remember, nobody has been paying much attention to McCain and what he is really about.

And if they aren't — well, maybe we'll deserve what we get.

Heading for the rocks again: Lost in all the exciting coverage of the polygamist compound was the news that, once again, the Michigan budget was headed for a major deficit in the year starting Oct. 1. This despite last year's months-long budget war that was supposed to solve the problem. Nothing was solved at all, of course. Actually, by sticking a last-minute surcharge on the Michigan Business Tax, they may have made things worse. I know a food co-op in Ann Arbor whose state tax bill went from $1,000 to $25,000 this year!

What's needed, if we are ever to be competitive again, is a complete overhaul of the way the state does business and computes its budget. And the lawmakers have a golden opportunity to do that — from Nov. 5 through next year.

Why then? Simple. Thanks to term limits, the vast majority of them will be lame ducks! The governor and lieutenant governor can't run again. Nearly all the state senators and probably more than half the House members are in their last terms. They now have the ability to make the hard and potentially unpopular decisions. They may not volunteer to do so, of course — but let's push them.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]
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