Forty years have passed since the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. Forty years have passed since the Kerner Commission warned that America was on the verge of becoming two nations, one white, the other black, “separate and unequal.” Forty years have passed since Richard Nixon capitalized on white resentment to win the presidency. Forty years have passed since George Wallace, segregationist, won 46 electoral votes and 13 percent of the popular vote as a third-party presidential candidate.
Forty years—the blink of history’s eye. A time period historians a thousand years from now will regard as statistically insignificant. But in those 40 years, in half a lifetime, the nation moved from the politics of division to the politics of inclusion, from Nixon and Wallace to Barack Obama and the audacity of hope.
Regardless of how history will see the last 40 years, there have been times since 1968 when history seemed to move far too deliberately, mocking talk of progress and boilerplate assurances that America could and would live up to its lofty ideals. African-Americans consigned to hellish slums had reason to believe that if history was moving at all, it must be moving backwards. Their living conditions became worse, not better, as 1968 faded from memory. Drugs, crime and unemployment turned communities into war zones. Schools, overwhelmed and often underfunded, failed to inspire. Popular culture encouraged nihilism and despair. Politicians assailed programs like welfare, food stamps, affirmative action and others associated with poor blacks. A child born in Harlem in 1968 came of age just as a new phrase—crack cocaine—entered the drug pusher’s vernacular. By most measures, the years passed far too slowly. Forty years was not half a lifetime in urban America. For far too many, 40 years was more than a lifetime.
Barack Obama was a child in 1968, living in Indonesia with his mother and her second husband. If he followed the presidential campaign in America at all, he did so at a distance and through the eyes of a child. Those who were older and closer to events in 1968 surely would have said that America would not, could not, elect a black president, not in their lifetimes. Not without a revolution or some other seismic cultural change.
And yet, it has come to pass, and it has come to pass sooner than anybody would have imagined in 1968. The members of the Kerner Commission would not have dared to predict that a black man would be president by 2008. They were more inclined to envision a nation torn apart by race, a nation where whites and blacks viewed each other with suspicion, a nation incapable of empowering one man’s dream that we might one day judge people not by their color but by the content of their character.
History will note that the nation turned to Barack Obama, a black man with an exotic name, during a time of national turmoil, a time when the nation seemed desperate for a unifying figure, a politician we could trust. The notion of white Americans—not all of them, of course, but more than enough to make him president—turning to a man of color at such a moment tells us a great deal about the changes in this country over the last 40 years. But it says something about Mr. Obama and his candidacy as well.
No white politician in recent years has managed to build bridges as Mr. Obama did this year, in the primaries as well as in the general election. When this newspaper endorsed Mr. Obama in the New York primary, we were impressed by his ability to rise above the slash-and-burn politics of the last quarter-century. Mr. Obama only got better as the campaign wore on, as he avoided the destructive cultural politics and finger-pointing that has characterized the rise to power of the baby boom generation. And so we became the first New York newspaper to endorse the senator in the general-election campaign.
With his victory, President-elect Obama will transform the political landscape in ways that none of his more experienced colleagues could. He is not invested in the old style of doing business in Washington; indeed, while he has been a U.S. senator for four years, he remains very much a Beltway outsider. That can only help him as he tries to make good on his pledge to change our politics—just as surely as he has changed our culture, and our self-image.
With the nation’s economy in turmoil, with American troops in harm’s way on distant battlefields, with terrorist threats never far from our minds, Barack Obama has no shortage of challenges awaiting him. His astonishing ability to unify, his sense that our common ideals are more important than our racial, ethnic, religious and cultural differences, will make him a strong commander in chief, a vibrant advocate for the nation and a reassuring presence at a time of continued economic anxiety.
The victory is Barack Obama’s. But the victory is not his alone. It is a victory for a generation of civil rights workers, for millions of African-Americans who demonstrated and fought and sometimes died for the right to cast a vote, to serve their country in war, to eat at a lunch counter.
In time, we may take this all for granted. For now, though, we as a people ought not to look too far ahead. All of us, including John McCain’s supporters, should take a moment or two to dwell on the history we have made. We have placed a black man in the nation’s highest office, an office that was once dominated by slaveholders. The country surely has begun to turn its back on the original sin of racism. We have upheld the principles that have made us a beacon to freedom-loving people around the world.