For one who can remember what America felt like the day before and the day after JFK was assassinated, this day is a long time coming. Although I was a little too young to have much understanding of the politics of 1963, growing up in Washington, D.C., I did have clear sense just before the assassination that hope and idealism were the order of the day. There was this young attractive couple in the white house challenging the younger generation, along with the rising hopes of the Civil Rights Movement in the wake of the Birmingham demonstrations and MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Then boom, it was gone.
LBJ’s leadership secured substantive domestic reforms, but he got bogged down in the Vietnam quagmire, and the idealism of the young generation was soon replaced by growing rage and alienation. Legions of white youth went Hippie, many, but not all apolitical. The more heroic Black freedom struggle began to spilnter away from the nonviolent consensus forged by MLK. Chicago, Nixon, Watergate, withering idealism and growing cynicism. A brief lift with Carter’s election, then a dozen Reagan and Bush years of unrelenting political bummage. Another lift with Clinton’s election, but despite the good economic times likened to “the golden age of Pericles,” Clinton did not recapture youth idealism on the same scale that JFK generated, even though he was as brilliant a politician as JFK.
Today we conclude 8 years of what more than a few historians consider the worst ever presidency, a low bar indeed. President Obama won’t have to accomplish much to do better than his predecessor, but if he doesn’t do enough, he won’t be re-elected, given the dimensions of the current economic crisis.
The high hopes that attend the inauguration of our 44th President run especially deep for African Americans, the Democrats’ most reliable and alert constituency. While most Black voters realize that Obama’s election is not the fulfillment of MLK’s Dream, it is a powerful step forward and an affirmation that the dream of a multiracial democracy, in which brotherhood can take root, can be realized. In this context, the greatest patriotic poem ever written, “Let America be America Again” penned in 1938 by Langston Hughes fits perfectly on this day:
Let America be America again. Let it be the dream it used to be. Let it be the pioneer on the plain Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed– Let it be that great strong land of love Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath, But opportunity is real, and life is free, Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me, Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark? And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart, I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars. I am the red man driven from the land, I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek– And finding only the same old stupid plan Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
I am the young man, full of strength and hope, Tangled in that ancient endless chain Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land! Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need! Of work the men! Of take the pay! Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil. I am the worker sold to the machine. I am the Negro, servant to you all. I am the people, humble, hungry, mean– Hungry yet today despite the dream. Beaten yet today–O, Pioneers! I am the man who never got ahead, The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream In the Old World while still a serf of kings, Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true, That even yet its mighty daring sings In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned That’s made America the land it has become. O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas In search of what I meant to be my home– For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore, And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea, And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came To build a “homeland of the free.”
Who said the free? Not me? Surely not me? The millions on relief today? The millions shot down when we strike? The millions who have nothing for our pay? For all the dreams we’ve dreamed And all the songs we’ve sung And all the hopes we’ve held And all the flags we’ve hung, The millions who have nothing for our pay– Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
O, let America be America again– The land that never has been yet– And yet must be–the land where every man is free. The land that’s mine–the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME– Who made America, Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain, Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain, Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose– The steel of freedom does not stain. From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives, We must take back our land again, America!
O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath– America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death, The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies, We, the people, must redeem The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers. The mountains and the endless plain– All, all the stretch of these great green states– And make America again!
Today President-elect Obama will be inaugurated on the crest of a great wave of youth idealism, on a scale not seen since the days of JFK. And tonight a very attractive young couple with two young children will once again take up residence in the white house. No one expects a return to Camelot — we’ve been through too much for that. But something beautiful for America begins anew today. My personal barometer is my two previously apolitical but now rabidly Obamaphile young people. I trust that the inevitable compromises President Obama will have to make won’t diminish their idealism too much. Hope is back in young America and it feels good.