Seismic Shift

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A dream comes true...
40 years later

"We've been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope. But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope."

- Barack Obama

I watched and listened to election results in the United States with the cool detachment of a political and media observer.

Yes, I was excited. I knew well the significance of what was going down, and was thrilled to see it come to pass.

Nonetheless, I was processing it on an intellectual level.

It didn't punch through to my emotions until the next day, when I posted the above quote on my facebook profile, commenting that the world had changed, and perhaps America had found its way.

My nephew Greg added agreement, and I replied this way:

"When I was a child, they were murdering and segregating people in the U.S. for the crime of being black. Now, a black person is president. I get a lump in my throat just thinking about it..."

After posting that note, I reflected some more about my childhood. And the lump in my throat grew larger.

As a child, I paid attention to the news every day, which should not be a surprise, given that my father worked with CJON. It was a real kick, seeing your dad on TV. So I was exposed to a range of world events, including racial unrest and injustice in the United States.

I remember hearing about racially-motivated killings of black people including children and being profoundly upset by it.

I do not remember specific incidents just my reaction to them. But a google search will reveal no shortage of such killings in the United States during the 1960s. I remember my parents trying in vain to answer my questions as I struggled to comprehend why people did such things.

Newfoundland was a completely homogeneous society back then, and I don't recall seeing a living, breathing black person until Expo '67 in Montreal. They looked a little different, but they were people. And you don't kill people because of the colour of their skin.

Right, mom?

Yes, Geoff.

Then why?

But there were no answers that made sense to my child's way of thinking, until the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, when I was 11.

I remember the intensity of that day, and the riots that followed. Finally, it was beginning to sink in. News reports tried to put it into context, with gut-wrenching archive footage of lynchings, Ku Klux Klan marches, policemen attacking black people with clubs and dogs, black children being spit upon while trying to enter a white school, and more.

It was perhaps my most powerful history lesson since learning about the Holocaust.

This was war for the black people; a campaign for the right to be recognized as nothing less than human. With the same rights as white people. And the ability to exercise those rights without fear of being attacked or killed.

Standing in their way were human barricades to freedom; throngs of otherwise normal white people even policemen with hatred in their eyes. People who looked like me.

I forced myself to choose sides and knew that, if there, I would be fighting with the black people. With that realization, I grew up a little that day.

But there was one more lesson.

In the days after King's death, excerpts from his immortal I Have a Dream' speech were aired on radio and TV. The strength of King's beliefs and rightness of his cause were reflected in the power and eloquence of his oratory. I learned that there was no limit to what passions could be aroused, what heights could be reached, through a constellation of carefully chosen words.

We now have a black president, an inconceivable notion when King was martyred just 40 years ago.

Expectations of Obama will be high, perhaps impossibly so. But his election signals a seismic shift in the American psyche that will have reverberations across the planet.

And the lump in my throat? That's renewed hope that my children - and their children - will inherit a kinder, safer world.

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  • Kathy
    July 27, 2010 - 14:53

    Well said, Geoff! I was 9 when King was assassinated and it was a major event of my childhood. Someone like Obama has seen the unfounded hatred that comes of ignorance and fear. And unlike Bush, he has the sensitivity and intelligence to prevent himself and his country from sinking to such levels. I have high hopes for our future, nationally and internationally.