In 1787, shortly after the members of the Constitutional Convention had completed their secret work in Philadelphia, a woman reportedly stopped Benjamin Franklin on the street near Federal Hall and asked: "What have you made for us in there, Dr. Franklin?"
"A republic, Madam, if you can keep it," Franklin replied.
I thought about that exchange shortly after last November's presidential election as I was driving my daughter Elizabeth home to Washington, D.C., from Detroit.
Elizabeth had just finished running the Michigan field operation for Barack Obama's general-election campaign, and she and her colleagues had done their work well: Senator John McCain had pulled his forces out of Michigan early, and Obama had won the state by 16 points and then gone on to pull off the most astonishing presidential victory of my lifetime. Friends quickly began asking Elizabeth what she was going to do next, and like most of her colleagues who had been averaging about four hours of sleep a night for months, she always gave the same answer: "I'm going to sleep."
Elizabeth did sleep as I drove up and around the mountains and through the tunnels of western Pennsylvania that I had loved on excursions during my student days in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I was now the 76-year-old father of the 25-year-old child of a second marriage, and glancing at this attractive brown woman with the well-tended dreadlocks, I was struck by two things: how alike we are, but also how differently we've sometimes viewed this republic and the citizens Ben Franklin hoped would keep it intact.
We had certainly differed about Obama. Both of us wanted the 2008 election to bring change to the nation―to make a more perfect union for the many Americans who suffer injustice, poverty, and despair. But when the prospect of Obama was put before us, our divergent life stories stirred responses that clashed.
Born in 1983, Elizabeth had a much less pessimistic view of America than I did in 1957, when I was 25.
I had been born in a segregated hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1932 and began my education in a segregated one-room schoolhouse. A year later I was bused across town, past sparkling new schools for whites, to a worn-down school reserved for blacks. As our bus rolled through the white neighborhoods, I imagined how good life must be for the children who lived there. But my daydreaming was often interrupted by the unsettling sight of white kids hopping around, scratching their ribs and pointing at us. The brute reality of segregation was suddenly in full view, and the message was clear: we were inferior―not fully human, if their monkey dance was to be believed. Even moving to Harlem when I was nine did not end this blunt, demoralizing attack on our collective psyche. The rejections and injustices, though more sophisticated, simply continued.
Then came Jackie Robinson. When he broke the color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, I got the first inkling that my status as a second-class American would not last forever. Robinson's stoicism, skill, and grace emboldened me, and the adulation he got from legions of whites who once were hostile to blacks proved, at least to my 15-year-old mind, that the country was changing. Yet by the mid-'50s I was weary again: hard racism still plagued the South, while the North was witnessing the slow-motion disintegration of institutions, such as public housing and urban policing, designed to serve the black poor. These were the failures that would lead to the urban riots of the 1960s―failures that got me wondering more often than not: What kind of republic were we really keeping?
Elizabeth, who was born in 1983, almost two decades after the heyday of the civil rights movement, had a much less pessimistic view of America than I did in 1957, when I was 25. Born to parents who each had law degrees and were both university professors, she studied at integrated schools and spent her days with white and black teachers and classmates in rich, nurturing environments. As a young, self-confident adult, she moved about in an America that, while not nearly perfect, had gone well beyond a mere embrace of Jackie Robinson. Through sit-ins and marches, many blacks and whites had come together to move the nation's consciousness and force sweeping legal changes that helped ease indignities and steady the playing field for people of color. And though much work had yet to be done by the time Elizabeth was born, she grew up knowing her own family contributed significantly to that progress, from her great-uncle Roy Wilkins, who headed the NAACP for 22 years and stood proudly on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the historic March on Washington; to her grandmother Helen Wilkins Claytor, who, as the first black woman to lead the national YWCA, made ending racism the organization's highest priority; to her father, who did civil rights work in the Justice Department during the Lyndon Johnson administration after that.
This was a family history that inspired Elizabeth deeply, but it was a history of struggle, setbacks, and psychic abuse she had not experienced. Thus, we differed about Obama's candidacy. I simply said, "No chance. The man's been in the Senate for 15 minutes, and white people just aren't going to vote for a new black guy―and certainly not in the numbers that would make him a serious candidate." But Elizabeth believed, fervently, that when people present themselves honestly, with wisdom and passion, they will be judged on their merits. She believed Obama, a brilliant, tenacious, cool tactician with compassion for the poor and energy to lead, would be judged for those qualities, and that his biracial background might even be a plus―a symbol of hope, the embodiment of divided worlds coming together. Yet true to her character, Elizabeth asked wise friends what they thought, too, and she quickly learned her idealism had not been totally misplaced. One white mentor told her about his 80-year-old mother who had never held "enlightened" racial views but who was ecstatic about the Obama candidacy and was giving strong support because she wanted to feel a new pride in her country. And so when Elizabeth asked me whether she should keep the good job she had with a major union or join the Obama campaign, I had the wit to reply: "Kid, this is your generation's Selma, and you dare not miss it."
Despite that advice, I didn't really believe in Obama's possibilities until he won the Iowa caucuses―and even then I was still struggling mightily to comprehend how the White House could be his for the taking. Looking at the very capable candidate, I thought back to the scores of highly intelligent black men and women I'd known over my lifetime who never even passed Go because whites did not believe they could do serious work. I thought about how my own credentials as a professional had come into question in the 1970s. I'd been hired as an editorial writer forThe New York Times, and after a couple of months on the job, the wife of a colleague shared that her husband was relieved I was proving to be "the real thing"―not the incompetent affirmative action hire he suspected I was, despite a glittering journalistic history. The exchange highlighted the ignorance, fears, and elitism that were still the baggage of a divided nation. And it was baggage I feared would weigh down the Obama campaign and make it founder.
But it was baggage Elizabeth did not want, or need, to carry. Her belief in the promise of the country, and of the electorate, was firm and enthusiastic. So, too, was the belief of tens of thousands of others in her generation―a multiracial, multiethnic lot that crossed class lines―who stormed the country and helped spread this optimism to others. After the Iowa caucuses, I caught that fire. With every primary victory by Obama, I came to see what they saw―that the tide was turning, that whites of all ages who'd been waiting for a strong and inspiring candidateanda way to help the country rise above its past were happy to have this choice; that blacks who had never quite felt valued in their own land could finally cast away their hidden shame. But foremost I saw once again that change requires hard work and a steady, abiding commitment to the republic―just as it always has.
With every primary victory I saw that the tide was turning.
Elizabeth knew that, of course. Waking from her slumber on that long ride from Detroit, she told me, to my surprise, that her civic spirit had come from her mother and me and from her ancestors, and that it had been the ultimate gift. So maybe the gift Americans can give Obama is their active, informed engagement on the issues he will be wrestling with in the White House. It is activism, after all, that keeps a republic strong―Ben Franklin knew that more than two centuries ago. Our charge today is that we not forget, and to pass that spirit to our youth.
I am reminded of a civics project Elizabeth interviewed me for when she was age ten or so. At the end of our recorded conversation, she asked whether I had "any advice for kids now and in the future."
"I think that decency and justice have to be worked for and fought for all the time," I responded. "It's important for Americans to understand that the political rights we're granted under the Constitution are meant to be used. You have to vote, get involved in making your neighborhood a better place, support education, fair housing, and good medical care; maybe even run for office. If you think a law is unfair, write to your congressman, call the White House."
"You can do that?" Elizabeth asked.
"You can do that."
Historian and journalist Roger Wilkins is professor emeritus at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
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