Harold Evans On How Obama Will Restore American Pride

November 11th, 2008

Barack Obama will give all Americans renewed pride in their country

By Harold Evans

Americans have been dancing in the streets, exchanging high-fives, hugging and cheering, smiling at strangers, waving their flags, snapping up every copy of memento newspapers across the country.

They feel a renewed faith in the America of their imaginations, the new-found land that brought so many millions of them here as a place of dreams.

Expressing pride in their country is something Americans do more easily and spontaneously than the more self-conscious British, but when Americans feel that pride betrayed, as they have in the years since 9/11, they swiftly recoil in shame. More gregarious, more uncertain of their identity, they have resented losing their moral stature in the world. They've mourned their self-imposed isolation.

America is a country of big ideas, so here's a very big idea for a new start: the first black President. It is a powerful redemptive symbol, whose significance can only be understood through the prism of history.

Forty seven years ago, in the very month Barack Obama was born, Aug 1961, a mathematical genius called Robert Moses set aside his studies for a few weeks. Mr Moses was 47 then, as Mr Obama is today, and as Mr Obama was to become, he was a post-graduate student at Harvard. That auspicious August, Moses travelled from Boston to the lush Mississippi Delta, starting at Amite County courthouse in McComb County where, unbeknown to him, state legislator E.H. Hurst had arranged a welcoming party.

Their reception for Robert Moses was to beat him unmercifully.

The thugs Hurst sent to beat Mr Moses, accosted him with the charge, “Ain't you the nigger trying to register our niggers?” It was true. Mr Moses was a self-effacing, black scholar of deep humility, but he was devoted to principle. Like Mr Obama, he was an accelerator of history. To the astonishment of the county prosecutor, he brought a case against his attackers. In a flash, enraged whites, many with shotguns, poured into the town of Liberty for the trial. Mr Moses walked calmly through the mob. It took the all-white jury no time at all to acquit the thugs. Mr Moses was advised to get out of town before nightfall. Lee Howard, a black farmer and father who had lent his car to Mr Moses, was shot dead by Representative Hurst, who was acquitted. It wasn't national news. It was normal life.

I witnessed the oppression of the blacks first hand when I was a graduate student at Chicago University and travelled through the South a few years before Mr Moses. Aside from the 40 or so activists who were murdered in the civil rights era during the course of non-violent protests, there were many others, white as well as blacks, who were routinely intimidated, run out of town, beaten or bankrupted.

My meeting in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, with the white owner of a small newspaper, was not at his home, because he'd been fire bombed the night before. He was not an activist. His offence was to write an editorial arguing that everyone should obey the Supreme Court ruling of 1954 desegregating schools.

Consider, then, this week's symbolic milestone in the acceleration of history, represented by the ascent of Mr Obama to the White House. One of the states that unexpectedly gave Mr Obama his majority was Virginia, the second capital of the slave-owning Confederacy, which a century after the Civil War shut down all its schools rather than obey the Supreme Court and let black children sit with white children.

In the Sixties, the holders of power in the South correctly perceived that enabling blacks to vote threatened their way of life. From birth to death blacks were barred from sharing the superior white facilities. “Jim Crow”, meaning segregation, prevailed for hospitals, schools, colleges, churches, parks, swimming pools, restaurants, toilets, waiting rooms, lifts, buses, trains, waiting rooms, theatres, cinemas, libraries, beauty parlours, bowling alleys, bars, prisons, and cemeteries. The laws were enforced in 17 Southern and border states, though more rigorously in the Deep South states of Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi and Louisiana where there was a much higher proportion of black Americans near equivalence for many years in Mississippi.

If blacks got the vote, the whole of this elaborate edifice of privilege, which gave poor whites a sense of superiority, could crumble. So in the 11 states of the South of the Old Confederacy, with 9 million blacks and 21 million whites, less than 10 per cent of eligible blacks were able to register to vote; in Mississippi only 5 per cent had any chance of voting and few risked trying.

My hosts in plantation homes and farms and newsrooms were gracious but were imprisoned by the mythic past and fearful of the unimaginable future. They tried hard to explain to me that they'd solve “the Negro problem” given time; in the meantime they seemed to think that personal kindness was a compensation for denying blacks their basic constitutional rights.

The most well-disposed white leaders in the Sixties vaguely hoped that a more prosperous, better educated Dixie would gradually shed its complex of fears and hates in favour of offering some modest emancipation.

William Faulkner, the novelist, the most original and perceptive voice of Southern literature, insisted that change could not be rushed by carping critics in the North, still less by federal interference. If it was to come, it would come from Southern whites themselves. But when Southerners talked of change coming organically, they had in mind a century or so, give or take a decade.

In the North, when I mentioned my misgivings about the slowness of reform in the South, the general response was a shrug, “Oh they're still fighting the civil war down there”, but in the North, too, the spirit of Jim Crow was very much alive. There were no segregation laws, but custom excluded blacks from the best hotels, the best restaurants, the best schools and jobs and neighbourhoods. Most white Americans then never gave the injustices a moment's thought. They did not “see” the national predicament of the black man when they hailed a graying “boy” for their bags at a hotel, had their shoes shined on the street, prayed for mankind in a church of white-only faces. The textbooks in schools, white or black, underplayed or ignored altogether the contributions of people like George Washington Carver (botany), Dr Daniel Williams (open heart surgery), and easily forgotten were the thousands of black soldiers who died defending America in foreign wars.

The struggle for recognition and equality of Robert Moses's generation, inspired by Martin Luther King, was not a mild and inevitable hiccup in the march of American progress, as it is remembered today, but a long and heroic ordeal. It was black people who were foremost in defending the constitution not congressmen, or the media, or federal agencies or Presidents, until Lyndon Johnson. With the jubilation so manifest in the tear-streaked face of the Rev Jesse Jackson, African Americans are entitled to a huge dose of pride in what they have achieved.

The bigotry American blacks fought had a long life and illustrious patrons. It is often forgotten that an entire succession of presidents – Ronald Reagan and George Bush vigorously, and Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford ambiguously – opposed part of all of the three major bills of the period: President Lyndon Johnson's 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 voting rights act, and the 1968 Fair Housing Act, “revolutionary” measures which only enforced black Americans' most basic constitutional rights.

Civil rights were hardly mentioned during any of those presidents' campaigns. Caroline Kennedy has said that Mr Obama is a president-elect very much like her father: in his charm, charisma and speaking ability, he is, but civil rights were not high on Kennedy's agenda either. Without Johnson's skilful bullying in the wake of Martin Luther King's movement, none of the liberating measures would have got through Congress.

Give blacks the vote, LBJ said, and they would do the rest and they did, but he knew that the battle against injustice was but entering a new phase. A black soldier coming home with his wounds from Vietnam in 1969 could still be refused service at a hamburger joint in Alabama, still be advised by a state trooper not to linger too long in the state with an LBJ sticker on his windscreen. But 19 years later, Capt Colin Powell, who didn't get the hamburger he craved, was Gen Colin Powell and the first black chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff. In 2001, he was the first ever black Secretary of State. The first black Chief Justice will come – and on merit, too.

Without the heroes of the civil rights era, Mr Obama would never have reached the mountain top to see the promised land. His triumph has offered not just redemption for historic white guilt but a role model of achievement for black youth.

Mr Obama cannot be accused of racism when he tells black youth that while it's silly to subject them to laws against saggy pants “brothers should pull up [their] pants: You are walking by your mother, your grandmother, your underwear is showing. What's wrong with that? Come on.”

The black family is a troubled feature of American life. More than half of babies born to black mothers grow up without a father and some 70 per cent of all black babies are born out of wedlock. It will be good to see the Obamas as a nuclear family in the White House with Sasha and Malia and their puppy.

But the significance of his election goes far beyond Mr Obama and his blackness. He has found unity in America's diversity. As he put it in his speech to the mixed audience in Chicago's Grant Park, he appeals to those yearning not for red and blue states but for a United States, to young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled. As well as its disasters, the Bush presidency had its achievements, but America is worn out by the retrogressive immaturity and intensity of the divisive, old culture wars resurgent through the Bush years. It has been sullied by the crude macho rhetoric, the secrecy and deceit, diplomacy reduced to “bring it on” belligerency and science sacrificed to ideology.

This new beginning, like others, could be spoiled. It is at risk if the Democratic majority in Congress throws its weight about, incited by the vengeful Left as the Bush Republicans were by their Right. There is undeniably a political anxiety about “the most liberal Senator”. This is still a country with conservative instincts: 57 million voted for John McCain. Mr Obama's talk of taking money from people who earn it to give it to people who don't sounds like a return to the entitlement society before President Clinton's welfare reform. His commitment to end the secret ballot in trade unions is an un-American assault on the freedom of the individual.

But all who know Barack Obama well are confident that, in office, he will behave as he did throughout

his remarkable campaign, with decisive coolness, and be as inspiring as JFK, as pragmatic as Franklin Roosevelt, and as steadfast as Woodrow Wilson, who took with him into the White House in 1912 a framed copy of Rudyard Kipling's poem If. Mr Obama has already shown he can keep his head while all about him are losing theirs.