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Life Lessons

From Cynicism to Hope—One Man's Journey

Author Roger Wilkins changed his mind about race in America after the presidential election—and for that, he gives credit to his daughter.

Roger Wilkins on Hope and Obama

President Obama's victory resonated in a myriad of ways for different generations. — Photo by Jeff Gentner/AP Photo

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.

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