A friend told me this story. A white friend. Some volunteers were in Appalachia doing door-to-door canvassing, an integral part of the Obama campaign's massive and successful get-out-the-vote effort.
A white woman answered at this one home. When asked who she planned on voting for in the presidential race, she yelled to her husband somewhere else in the house and asked: “Who we gonna vote for?” He answered back: “We're gonna vote for the n-----r.” She then turned back to the volunteer and repeated matter-of-factly: “Oh, we're gonna vote for the n-----r.”
Knowing how stories can get reshaped in multiple retellings, this one could wind up being apocryphal. But in hearing that story – even as I cringed at the n-word – I couldn't help but think civil rights leader Martin Luther King would see this as a partial fulfillment of the dream he expressed so eloquently 45 years ago.
That famous, emotionally charged speech was delivered to thousands who had assembled at the Lincoln Memorial for what King called “the greatest demonstration of freedom in the history of our nation.” That day he spoke of the injustices and indignities black citizens endured in the United States, and of the “promissory note” of equality explicit in “the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence” that the country had reneged on.
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But in the most memorable lines, he spoke of “a dream ... deeply rooted in the American dream ... that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
And in a visceral way, that's what the Appalachian couple was doing. They haven't yet given up the demeaning language used to describe blacks – and yes, it's demeaning even when black people use it – but they had stopped viewing blackness as a disqualifier, as an automatic stamp of incompetence and inability. In Obama, they saw someone with the skills and intellect to make their lives better.
That's not the history-making leap voters made in electing the first African American president on Tuesday. But it's a monumental break with the past, especially for some Southerners.
Much has been said and written of the impact of Obama's election on African Americans and other people of color in the United States. That impact is undeniable, and was captured poignantly in the cheers raised and tears shed across the nation.
Obama himself acknowledged the impact in his victory speech where he paid tribute to a 106-year-old black Atlanta woman who voted for him. Of Ann Nixon Cooper he said: “She was born just a generation past slavery… when someone like her couldn't vote for two reasons – because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.... I think about all that she's seen throughout her century in America – the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress…”
In reality, the Civil War and the civil rights movement liberated whites as much as blacks from bondage. And psychologically, so does this moment in history too. I can see it here in North Carolina as the Tar Heel state ditched its red for blue, for the first time since 1976 lining up behind a Democratic presidential candidate. The state map shows pockets of winning blue all across it, and in some red areas Obama came close.
Overall, the South was still a tough place for a Democratic presidential candidate. Only Florida, Virginia and North Carolina went Democratic this year. And for many, their preference for the GOP and John McCain had nothing to do with the color of the candidate's skin. But a Yahoo/AP poll in September showed a number of whites still clung to negative stereotypes about blacks generally.
Ann Cooper called the willingness of those holding such views to vote for Obama, “a victory of faith over fear.”
It was that. It was also progress.