Friday, August 29, 2008

One man's journey

A friend I met in the Obama campaign sent the following account of the journey that brought him to this point in our history. He has graciously permitted me to quote him:

Joe Biden quotes Robert Frost in Biden's (now best selling) book, Promises to Keep On Life and Politics:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

Nancy and I spent the last four days (as I am sure most of you did) watching the gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Democratic National Convention in Denver. (We discovered the first day that by watching the whole convention on C-SPAN we were sparred the commercial interruptions and the irrelevant commentators, and got to see every speech and hear all the music and spot friends in the crowd--nothing like actually being there, but the next best thing). We capped the convention last night, of course, by being swept away with the most riveting political speech of our lifetime. We both feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude for living in this country at this time, and being able to participate in the most historic election for change in our lifetime.

So many thoughts and emotions came up for us, far too many to relate in this brief space. But some of the more salient bear noting, especially those that reminded me most poignantly of my own journey to this place of new-found hopefulness.

I grew up in a somewhat segregated small town in Central Indiana in the 1940's and 1950's, where African -Americans could go to public schools and participate in athletics, but could not swim in the local public pool, eat at the local drugstore lunch counter, or even try out for cheerleader. Racial epithets and covert prejudice were common, and some neighboring towns were widely known to be off-limits to Blacks after dark. I was extremely fortunate, however, to have had tolerant and accepting parents, and enough open-minded adults in the community that I felt I could and did develop some life-long friendships and attachments to several of my Black classmates (all of whom went on to impressive careers as lawyers,or school teachers, or ministers,or community leaders, etc).

I joined a fraternity while in college that had, it turned out, a national, de facto prohibition against admitting Blacks. None of the fraternities in my college accepted Blacks, and unfortunately few Blacks chose to attend my college.

I spent almost four years after college in the US Navy, almost all of it in Georgia and Virginia in the early sixties. I was introduced to Southern segregationist politics in Athens, Georgia in 1962 when the last of the long-time racist governors, Marvin Griffin, finally lost out to a "moderate" Democrat in the primary. Lemuel Penn, a noted Washington, DC Black educator , was assassinated by Klan nightriders in Athens shortly before I moved there, and the University of Georgia was first integrated when I was there in Athens. I lived in Norfolk, Virginia for two years, just after the schools were desegregated. I lived in rural Virginia for a year where the schools had just been desegregated but not the school buses. I was an officer on an aircraft carrier that had a special enlisted corps (stewards) that waited on officers and was made up solely of Blacks and Filipinos.

When I took my first (and only) law firm job in 1969, I learned that I would be joining an incoming class that had the first Black lawyer in the firm's then 120 year history (he later became with me a partner, a State Senator in Connecticut, president of the National Council of Christians and Jews, and remains one of my best friends .He was a delegate this week to the Convention, too)Happily, my firm has since taken leadership roles over the years to advance the opportunities for lawyers and staff of all colors and gender, so that now I think I can safely say that diversity is the norm, not the exception for us.

I set this brief history out to simply remind myself of how far we have come in this country (and in my own life) in the struggle to achieve racial justice. And to remind myself that Barack Obama, and hundreds of the delegates to the Denver Convention this week, had to overcome in their lives much of the prejudice and discrimination I just described. But we also were repeatedly reminded this week of how many miles we still have to go before we sleep, not only to achieve racial justice, but social, economic, and gender justice as well.

1 comment:

Leanderthal, Lighthouse Keeper said...

Boy, that takes me back. I worked in Atlanta from 1961 to 1986 and saw it all.

I saw Lester Maddox elected governor though nobody admitted to voting for him.