For much of the last century, the melting pot was a sanctioned American ideal. Theodore Roosevelt, John McCain’s hero, admired Israel Zangwill’s play of that name. “That’s a great play, Mr. Zangwill, that’s a great play,” Roosevelt cried out from his box at the American premiere 100 years ago, later agreeing to let Zangwill dedicate the published version to him, writing: “I do not know when I have seen a play that stirred me as much.” TR, an Anglo-Saxon supremacist whose name is too easily taken as an unproblematic emblem of American virtue, would have been horrified to know that, a century on, the pot has melted so much alloy. But the election of Barack Obama shows that America is not done taking its ideals literally.
This moment brings to mind three personal tableaus I am old enough to remember. The first: a mid-Fifties stopover in Richmond, Virginia, and, in the bus station, my first sight of “White” and “Colored” water fountains and bathrooms, and the dumb disbelief a Bronx teenager felt to behold such things, which I had of course read about—to know in my bones that a whole society went to the trouble of putting this craziness on earth and keeping it there.
A few years later, in 1963, I was one of a handful of nonviolent hotheads, black and white, who forded a stream to outfox the police and found ourselves surrounded by a mob screaming “n— lovers” in the middle of a hitherto lily-white (as they used to say) amusement park outside Baltimore. (The county executive who denounced all the demonstrators, even the thousand plus who had walked decorously across an invisible park boundary to submit to arrest, was a Republican moderate named Spiro Agnew.)
Five years later—an eternity in Sixties time—I was among the crowds in Chicago's Grant Park, where mayhem arrived at the hands of the police under Mayor Daley's command. These crowds, it should be remembered, were overwhelmingly white. Black people were not up for attempts at nonviolent faceoffs against the Chicago police. (I remember a little black boy on the West Side who asked me if I was going to the demonstration one day that week. I told him I was. “Are you gonna kill a cop?” was what he wanted to know.) There was, unbeknownst to us, an unappreciated irony: By August 1968, Mayor Daley, who was no friend of the civil rights movement, opposed the Vietnam war. A majority of the country did. But Daley wouldn’t say so, wouldn’t yield an inch to accommodate even nonviolent demonstrators, just as, in 1966, he had stonewalled Martin Luther King’s doomed efforts to integrate Chicago.
No politician emerged to federate all the opposing factions within the democratic party and coax a new majority into being. Or rather, the one who tried had been shot dead. Now, the black militants, student radicals, professional-class liberals, white ethnics—these offspring of the once mighty New Deal coalition were at loggerheads. The longtime civil rights hero and party standard-bearer Hubert Humphrey, proud New Deal scion, was emasculated. Having estranged both its antiwar Left and its George Wallace Right, the center went limp. The Democratic Party disbanded, in effect.
There followed the wilderness decades when the Democrats were a rump party, Scotch-taping together a winning coalition only when a white Southern Baptist could hold some of the breakaway Dixiecrat South. We know what happened—the Dixiecrats never said die but became Republicans. Even when they didn’t have a lock on the whole country, they had a lock on their party of choice.
Flash forward to Tuesday, November 4. The crowd in Grant Park was many times grander and happier than forty years earlier. The tears were from joy, not CS gas. The park, as we used to say, belonged to the people. “The people” this time were not an exclusive band of true believers. Included this Tuesday night were probably, on the one hand, the children or grandchildren of the Chicago cops and National Guardsmen of 1968 and, on the other, the children or grandchildren of those they clubbed and Maced. And the hands were, at least figuratively, intertwined.
In 1968, nobody much believed in the Yippies’ promise of a “Festival of Life.” Grant Park, the site of 1968’s throttled attempt at an affirmation, was the site of Barack Obama’s festival now. It was fitting, for he is the child of those years. Not the clone, but the child—the literal child, in fact, of a marriage that was still illegal in 17 states at the time of his birth. His adversaries tried to tar him with the bogeymen of the worst excesses of that decade—the erratic black nationalist Jeremiah Wright, the failed terrorist Bill Ayers—but they never understood that Obama was something else (some, no doubt, did understand him but maligned him nevertheless).
At long last, after many false starts and rollbacks, there emerges the promise (not a guarantee, but a promise) of a grown-up majority, an enduring assemblage, including a successor mayor named Daley, able to face all kinds of reality—the American reality of a mixed-up nation and the grander reality of a mixed-up world in which Kenyans meet Kansans on islands where both are minorities. Obama’s unifying spirit is part of the lost legacy of the Sixties. He stands on the shoulders of the audacious, terrified crowds of four decades ago, a man of the world, a mestizo, a mixed bag, a consternation to purists. A half-black, half-white American, a man who in the custom of the country is considered black, or African-American, has won the confidence of a majority of his people, who are not simply African-Americans (who have their especial reasons to weep) but a melting-pot people still melting.
It was just before Chicago, when Barack Obama was seven years old, that Martin Luther King, Jr. declared: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Less often quoted from the same speech are these words: “the black man needs the white man and the white man needs the black man….there is no separate black path to power and fulfillment that does not intersect white paths, and there is no separate white path to power and fulfillment, short of social disaster, that does not share that power with black aspirations for freedom and human dignity. We are bound together in a single garment of destiny.” Such garments do not cost $150,000, but they are more dear.
“America will be!” wrote Langston Hughes—emphasis on will—and he didn’t say when. Well, Barack Obama is no miracle worker, and he promises none, but his Grant Park assembly ushers in the end of the beginning. Yes We Did. Overcome.