By Eugene Robinson
DENVER—“I cried on Monday when Michelle spoke,” Rep. John Lewis told me Wednesday at the Pepsi Center, “and I know that on Thursday night at the stadium I’ll cry again.”
Lewis, as every schoolchild should know, is one of the few lions of the civil rights movement still with us. As a Freedom Rider, he was pummeled by white Alabama mobs in 1961. As chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he spoke alongside Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington in 1963. His pate is scarred from a brutal beating administered by Alabama state troopers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge during the first Selma-to-Montgomery march, in 1965. Lewis has earned the right to shed tears of amazement and joy.
A Democrat who represents Atlanta, Lewis fretted for months over whom to endorse in the primaries. Last October, he joined much of the black political establishment in backing Hillary Clinton—out of a sense of loyalty and Realpolitik. But as it became clear that Barack Obama might actually win the nomination, Lewis seemed increasingly agonized over the choice he had made. It wasn’t just that he was catching hell from his African-American constituents; nothing in John Lewis’ biography suggests he even knows how to back down. Rather, he began to feel that he was on the wrong side of history.
“Something is happening in America, and people are prepared and ready to make that great leap,” he said in mid-February. Two weeks later, he switched his endorsement to Obama.
We haven’t heard much about race during the Democratic convention. That’s clearly by design, and in terms of Obama’s prospects it’s probably a good thing. A recent New York Times-CBS News poll found that 16 percent of white voters feared an Obama administration would “favor blacks over whites.” Obama has taken great pains to reassure voters that as president he would act without racial animus or resentment—that he bears no grudges and intends to settle no scores. His success to date has depended largely on his ability to be seen as a candidate who happens to be black rather than as “a black candidate.”
Still, this is an amazing, unbelievable moment.
Wandering around the convention hall, I kept running into people with a kind of “pinch me, I’m dreaming” look in their eyes. I saw Spike Lee, who seems to be everywhere; in a television interview earlier in the week, he grandiloquently divided American history into two epochs, “B.B.” and “A.B.”—Before Barack and After Barack. I saw New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who was hoping he’d have the chance to witness Obama’s acceptance speech before rushing home to prepare for the likely landfall of the evil-looking storm named Gustav. I met black delegates from Florida, California and various points in between, and they all said basically the same thing: Do you believe this is happening?
When Clinton came to the convention floor during Wednesday’s roll call and asked that Obama be nominated “by acclamation,” I got a lump in my throat. I knew that it wouldn’t be official until Obama had given his acceptance speech, according to party rules, but there was something about the word “acclamation” that hit me. It implied an acceptance of leadership, a recognition of merit. African-Americans have been an integral part of this nation since its birth and certainly don’t need anyone’s validation. Still, it feels as if this obvious historical fact has finally been acknowledged in a way that many of us felt we’d never witness in our lifetimes.
A black man is running as the Democratic candidate for president of the United States. Can you believe that?
Whether Obama wins or loses in November is important, to say the least; this feels like one of those potential turning-point moments for our nation, full of both peril and possibility. The campaign won’t really even begin in earnest until next week, after the Republicans have held their convention. The debates are still to come; events surely will intrude; the polls will start to mean something; and what looks now like a squeaker of an election could turn into a landslide either way.
But let’s not let this moment pass without fully appreciating what we’ve just seen. All Americans, regardless of race or party, should think of John Lewis bleeding on that Alabama bridge—and then think of him at Invesco Field, watching a black man accept his party’s nomination.
Tears are entirely appropriate.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group