The Common Good

Changing Places: How the Obama Election Transformed Historic Locations

Having talked to many friends since the election, I am conscious of how lots of us are still trying to let what happened sink in. Places form indelible parts of our memories, and I was especially struck how "places" changed last week.

In April, 1968, the streets where I now live and work in inner-city Washington D.C. erupted in horrible violence after the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 40 years later, when the election result was announced at 11:00 p.m. Eastern time, people went into those same streets to dance and hug. My wife Joy, the party animal, was one of the first ones out in front of the house with our 10 year-old-son Luke. Friends and strangers of all ages and races were embracing each other, pouring champagne, and literally dancing for joy.

Also in April 1968, Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, was a place of deep sorrow for the funeral service of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a son of the church. The whole nation watched in mourning as the young moral leader of the nation was laid to rest by his grieving father and a shocked citizenry. 40 years later, the church's new sanctuary became a place of jubilation during an "election watch night service" led by a pastor from a new generation, Rev. Raphael G. Warnock.

And finally, Grant Park. I remember watching television on an August night in 1968 when that very park became a scene of bitter and angry violence outside the Democratic Convention. King and Robert Kennedy had been killed, and the hopes of the anti-war and civil rights movements were beaten down by the police of Mayor Richard Daley. I was a young college student but felt the intense anger as I watched at home in Detroit. And I must confess the memory of wanting to go to Chicago, to fight in the streets against the system that so many felt had betrayed us. The Grant Park bloodbath also marked the implosion of the Democratic Party and the end of all the hopes sparked by the social movements of the 1960s. But last Tuesday night, another leader stood up to give his acceptance speech as the new President-elect of the United States and said, "If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer." The extraordinarily hopeful event went off without any incidents, protected by the police of another mayor of Chicago named Richard Daley.

Places. I have been struck all during this campaign by how much the younger generation who filled the Wallis household on election night were always confident about the outcome and how nervous people of my generation were right up until Pennsylvania went for Obama and we realized McCain had no path to victory. For those of us who have lived through the wilderness of the last 40 years, it has become wise never to underestimate the fear and yes, the racism, in America. The feelings of relief and almost disbelief were overwhelming.

The "place" that we have called our country has changed. And perhaps the most important thing of all is what the black children in my longtime neighborhood were feeling the next day. Children of color, indeed of all colors, across America woke up on Wednesday morning not just to a new day, but a new world. They now believe that anything is possible for them in this country. And no matter what any of us may feel about the policies of a new Obama administration, that is something that all of us can be dancing in the street about. The place has changed.

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