The great question in America is, and always has been, the rights of its citizens. Who is counted among 'we, the people', and to what degree? How can a nation dedicated to liberty tolerate, even defend, slavery and discrimination for 250 years? Liberty was first claimed by and for white men of property. America's progress is measured in the extension of that liberty to all Americans.
Are we now living in a time of great change, a time when we can see the arc of the moral universe bend more towards justice?
The extension of civil rights has not been gradual; it has been marked by long struggles and slow progress against determined opposition, culminating in a national convulsion producing sudden massive change. Those times of convulsive change have been followed by reaction, by the re-establishment of majority control that preserves only a portion of the gains that were made.
The Founding Fathers won freedom for white male property owners in America. Jefferson wrote that all men are created equal knowing that he would not extend that equality to the men he owned or the women who lived with him or with them. He and the leaders of the Revolution left this conflict for another generation.
The abolitionist struggle culminated in the civil war, ending slavery. Lincoln of course became its architect and its voice. But these gains were followed by decades of Jim Crow that saw the white establishment regain all the power. A dozen or more presidents tolerated or advanced this re-assertion of the power of the white male.
The long struggle by the NAACP and others against segregation culminated in the Civil Rights acts in the sixties. King was among the architects of these gains and became their most powerful voice, and Johnson did, finally, force passage of the laws. These gains were again followed by reaction, as the Southern Strategy played on white resentment and re-established white control of political power. To me, Reagan is the true architect of this reaction.
Jefferson was a child of the Enlightenment, Lincoln of the great moral awakening, King and Johnson of the New Deal, the defeat of fascism, and the civil rights struggle. All lived in times that nurtured their gifts and understood their message. They lived at the right time, when the time was ripe for change, but they also shaped their times.
Now we are seeing another time of convulsive progress. Obama's election and re-election may signal the end, or at least the beginning of the end, of the politics of white power in America. Obama did not do this through his own actions; he can't be ranked with Jefferson, Lincoln, King, or even Johnson. The feckless Bush administration all but guaranteed a Democratic win in 2008 and that win was, improbably, seized by an inexperienced black Senator with a strange name. Does anyone imagine that an Obama could have won in 1980? In 2000? In 2004? No,the time was right.
Yet Obama's first term has seen new vigor in the movement for equality, and remarkable progress on gay rights that I, at least, did not imaging possible four years ago. It is less a product of Obama's actions than it is a product of his existence. By winning, by governing, and especially by being re-elected he has, perhaps, unleashed convulsive change that could yield real gains in civil rights.
Twenty years ago I could not believe that a black man could be President in my lifetime. Four years ago I didn't imagine that he would face 8% unemployment and campaign on raising taxes, defending choice, providing a pathway to citizenship, and allowing gay marriage. And win.
We don't yet see an America where everyone gets a fair chance and white men don't get an automatic advantage. Yet in the Obama presidency this America can be glimpsed, and we see that it will work. Obama had major successes and some failures, but we see that he is the President and that he has been accepted as such by all but most hateful and bigoted.
I don't say that Obama belongs on Rushmore with Jefferson and Lincoln, but I do group Obama with them and others whose work has advanced freedom in America. I contrast that group against Reagan and his ilk, the leaders who oppose it.
Obama's victory speech moved me with its vision of a coming time when all of us can dream and have a fair chance at success. A time when the white establishment can no longer count on passing laws to prevent it. A time when we all, together, form a more perfect union that preserves the blessings of liberty for all of its people.
That, to me, would be a new birth of freedom.