We’ve Come This Far By Faith: A Virginian Reflects on the 44th President & 44 Years

Now that we have experienced the unprecedented election of Barack Obama, let us remember how this day is but one great victory amidst many grave sacrifices in our continual struggle for progress. We owe it to ourselves, and our grandchildren, to remember and to reflect while we rejoice. It is the only way we will be able to declare that the progress Americans have worked so hard for over the last forty-four years will legitimately be followed by forty-four years worth of progress still before us. We have come this far by faith. But we can’t turn around.

We’ve Come This Far By Faith:
A Virginian Reflects on the 44th President & 44 Years
Sunday, November 23, 2008 ● Alexandria, Virginia

 

We’ve come this far by faith,
Leaning on the Lord
Trusting in his holy Word,
He’s never failed me yet.
Oh, can’t turn around,
We’ve come this far by faith.

Three years after Barack Obama was born, Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. Upon putting down the pen, he declared that "We have lost the South for a generation."  Forty-four years have passed, and now, as a nation and as a state, not only have we gone Democratic but we have also chosen Barack Obama as our Forty-Fourth President.

November 4, 2008, taught us many lessons we already knew.  For me personally, it was a humble reminder to rediscover that the democracy I’m in love with is above all a value we share, which can unite us as a people, whether we voted Democrat or Republican that day.  Even with the bickering, narrowness, and divisiveness of which we each are guilty, we still are brought together through the quaint, epic act of choosing our leaders in this ever perfecting union.  We reaffirmed America’s greatness on the second Tuesday in November, just as we do every year at the polls here in Virginia and all across the country. We confirmed yet again that the experiment known as democracy is a consistent force throughout our time and that a peaceful transfer of power can occur in this, the strongest nation in the world, based on the people’s choice of leadership and their hopes for the unfinished work in these United States.

 

And yet this Election Day was as remarkable as they come. As a people, we made history through unprecedented voter turnouts supporting a truly unprecedented candidate.

Forty-four years from now, I will be telling my grandchildren about the moment when CNN called Virginia for the Democrats and then, twenty seconds later, announced the West Coast returns and the election of Barack Obama.  Joyous, proud tears welled up in my eyes on Election Night 2008, when I knew we had so much to believe in looking forward to the years ahead.  I am so hopeful that once those years have come and gone, tears might come again to my eyes, this time out of gratitude and humility, when I look back on what we have accomplished because of November 4, 2008.

 

The truth is that we have already come so far.  My grandchildren will surely be amazed to hear about how during Barack Obama’s lifetime, we went from the segregated South, from water fountains marked "Colored," water cannons turned against peaceful protesters, and voting rights withheld from them, to the awe-inspiring day when voters of every skin color all across America – and Southerners in Virginia and North Carolina – cast their ballots for him, added their share to his 365 electoral college vote total, and made him President of the United States.  What will the looks on their faces reveal when it dawns on them that the great-great-grandfather of the First Lady of the United States was a slave in South Carolina’s rice fields?  What will they say when they hear the history of America told through this storyline: Jim Robinson to Jim Crow to the Inauguration of Barack Obama?

 

What will they think when they learn how Virginia and North Carolina supported Barack Obama for President, the places that have witnessed the full two centuries of the American slave trade since its beginnings in 1619, two Confederate capital cities and the surrender at Appomattox in 1865, the Roanoke Riot of 1893, the Wilmington Massacre of 1898, and many of the 4000 other mob lynchings committed in the South between 1880 and 1930, the Martinsville Seven in 1949, the Woolworth’s counter sit-ins from 1960, Danville’s Bloody Monday in 1963, the deaths during the Morningside Heights march in 1979, and so much else unwritten and untold.

 

Maybe what they say in response will not matter as much as the expressions on their faces.  When the time is right and they are old enough to know the full story, I am sure there will be surprise in those eyes when they hear about this horrid thing called segregation, this unspeakable tragedy called slavery, this democracy that for ages was not one.  Their innocence will remind me of all of those children who have experienced an America that differs so profoundly from the nation we will leave to future generations. It is only due to the faith that it took to get us here – by those who had to live through enslavement and dehumanization and deprivation and disenfranchisement- that we can rejoice in this day’s triumph and look ahead to the opportunities that exist during those to come.

There is tremendous urgency in the work before us. A President has not entered the office during wartime since Vietnam (and now it is twice over, considering that we are still at war in both Iraq and Afghanistan), nor has he been met by an economic crisis of this scale since FDR (and the asset write-downs and job losses analysts anticipate in the coming months indicate it is all going to get worse before anything gets better). Our prized infrastructure has been left to decay and has not been properly taken care of since it was first built under Eisenhower. In New Orleans, homes remain ravaged – and lives do too – and what was truly an American tragedy still awaits a truly American response. In America, economic inequality between the richest and poorest has widened over recent decades: the gap between the nation’s CEOs and average workers is now ten times greater than it was a generation ago, while the Bush Administration enacted tax cuts that gave the richest five percent of the population almost half of the tax benefits. Educational inequality is an even more grotesque blight: fourth graders growing up in low-income communities are already three grade levels behind their peers in high-income communities, half of them won’t graduate from high school by the time they’re eighteen years old, and only one in ten will graduate from college.

Somewhere in Pakistan or Afghanistan Osama Bin Laden and others are still hiding and plotting. In a place called Gitmo, heinous acts of torture were once ordered in an affront to human dignity. While those demeaning photographs have been but barely repressed in our consciousness from that place called Abu Ghraib, yet we lack the conscience to provide answers about prisoners still being held in jail cells without having been formally charged for over seven years. Global warming threatens our very existence and although we have sounded the alarms that eleven of the past twelve years are among the dozen warmest since 1850, we continue our daily lives undisturbed in our habits, often even unwilling to take the small personal steps needed to deal with climate change. Everywhere in our world, from the recent revelations about horrors in the Democratic Republic of Congo to the ongoing, unresolved genocide in Darfur, people are suffering tonight in ways that modern civilization should find humiliating and for which, in our shared humanity, we are all responsible. This is a world of crises and a world in crisis.

And while we will soon have Barack Obama as President, we must face the fact that we have so much work left to do in this country in terms of social justice and fair opportunity to make the promised American dream available to every American regardless of what zip code they are born into or who their parents are. On the morning after Election Day 2008, more than three times as many African Americans woke up in prison cells than in college dorms. Approximately 41 percent of the nation’s 2 million prison and jail inmates are African American, a disproportionate representation of over three times, since 12.8 percent of us are African Americans. Barack Obama’s election is a triumph, and his inauguration makes for an undeniably momentous first-in-history. But we must make it our mission to improve the socioeconomic realities in this country for people of all races and backgrounds. Barack Obama becoming the 44th President of the United States of America should serve as a reminder, a recommitment, and a renewal for collective, on-the-ground action for the common good. We must refrain from settling into a self-satisfying sense of attainment, as if we now stood triumphant atop some summit with all the hard work finally finished.

 

The truth is that we are far from finished, at home and abroad. The world’s woes and America’s afflictions remain very real – but the question is whether we allow ourselves to become isolated or if we seek stances of true compassion for the troubles of neighbors near and far. If we want to talk about "real America," we should force the conversation about those who are the least, the last, the lost, and the loneliest among us. For me, this is what "real Virginia" must connote: a beautiful, blessed place where I was born and which I proudly call home that is also where, in Wise County and so many others like it throughout rural Virginia, impoverished children suffer without basic dental care and where, in inner-city Richmond and Virginia Beach, teenagers on the streets witness gang violence and see murders at gunpoint firsthand. This reality asks us to consider the young man who will come home to Norfolk from Iraq as an amputee from an IED. And yes, it forces us to think of the lives of people like Phillip Leon Thurman: an African American man who was convicted of a crime he did not commit in 1985 and was not released from a Virginia prison until 2005.

 

The social and economic injustices and the intolerance and discrimination that we have yet to confront as a nation are dismal and uninviting. But as we cherish this moment of joyous celebration, let us remember all of these issues too. Now that we have experienced the unprecedented election of Barack Obama, let us remember how this day is but one great victory amidst many grave sacrifices in our continual struggle for progress. We owe it to ourselves, and our grandchildren, to remember and to reflect while we rejoice. It is the only way we will be able to declare that the progress Americans have worked so hard for over the last forty-four years will legitimately be followed by forty-four years worth of progress still before us. We have come this far by faith. But we can’t turn around.


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