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Will Obama Cleanse America?

Will Obama Cleanse America?

By Sherwood Ross

November 4, 2008, will be remembered as the night Americans cried for joy. It was not only the hundred thousand partisan Chicagoans gathered in Grant Park that were moved to rapture. Good people across the nation wept with gratitude that America at last had taken a giant step to overcome its racism, just as the martyred Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had dreamed in his historic speech at the Lincoln Memorial 45 years ago. They wept because Barack Obama had scored a smashing victory over his rival that could not be denied by any combination of vote thieves or by the U.S. Supreme Court. They wept because the better man won.

The most gifted orator and erudite political figure to grace the American scene in memory, Barack Obama’s star shone ever brighter during the campaign the better the public got to know him. He outperformed previous Democratic presidential candidates with his message of hope and “Yes we can.” As predicted in this space a week ago, based on my interviews with Miami area early voters leaving the polls, Obama would be the likely winner in Florida. Voters that could not remember casting a ballot for the Democrats marked him as their man. As it turned out, he got the votes of many Republicans that recognized his intelligence, charisma, and cool under pressure. “Among the Republican-leaning groups that moved into the Democratic column for Mr. Obama were mothers and Catholics,” the New York Times reported November 5th.

Although The Times headlined “Racial Barrier Falls in Heavy Turnout,” a glance at the map shows Senator John McCain ran strongest in the states of the Old South, where the racism virus lingers on. While that region has made magnificent progress in casting off its segregationist heritage, there remain many southerners, particularly among the elderly, that still will not vote for an African-American. The Internet in Kentucky and neighboring states in recent months were flooded with e-mails bearing crude, racist pictures and text. Even so, Obama carried Virginia and North Carolina as well as Florida, states that once cried “Segregation forever!” Obama ran particularly well among the college educated, just as he failed to make his case in some mid-Central and mountain states where colleges are few and far between. I thought it significant that Florida voters asked why they voted as they did responded very differently. McCain’s voters tended to give short answers like “he’s better on defense” while the Obama voters were literally loquacious giving their many reasons. McCain’s strength came from elderly white men. Obama’s strength came from younger white professionals and women. Obama’s fiercest backers where I interviewed voters were University of Miami students that cited statistics and discussed the details of the comparative tax and health plans of the candidates.

Democrat John Lewis, the Georgia congressman and former civil rights activist, told TV news viewers, “This is an undeniable historic moment. It’s unbelievable we (African-Americans) have come such a distance in such a short time. I never had any idea that I would live to see an African-American become president of the United States of America.” Lewis then went on to praise the contributions of past generations, black and white, famous and unknown, “who brought us to this day.” How right he was.

Besides Dr. King, the Fifties and Sixties produced men and women of stature who gave their time and their lives to create the level playing field on which Obama scored his triumph yesterday. All the civil rights organizations were headed by bright, intelligent, and probably angry men who took to heart the message of NAACP director Roy Wilkins: “Don’t get mad, get smart!” Whitney Young Jr., who led the National Urban League in the Sixties and whose plea for a “Domestic Marshall Plan” was ignored, once spoke of how during World War Two he worked unloading supplies from cargo ships because he was not allowed to fight alongside white soldiers. That was changed when President Harry Truman desegregated the military, which promptly set an example of racial harmony for the rest of society. When Young took over the Urban League, in 1964 he launched a get-out-the-vote campaign that registered 1 million voters. Two years later, James Meredith, who earlier had integrated the University of Mississippi at Oxford, was shot down at Hernando, Miss., on a public highway for demanding the right to vote. After the shooting (Meredith recovered and later wrote a history of Mississippi, among other works), Federal registrars descended on the state and registered thousands of Blacks that had been previously denied. As more African-Americans got their right to vote, the South’s white politicians were forced to tone down their virulent appeals to racism and racism began to fade. Obama’s victories in three southern states yesterday didn’t just happen. They were purchased with the blood and tears of thousands of dedicated Americans, heroes in their own right no less than Senator McCain.

In his victory yesterday, Obama inspired young Americans to vote as never before. Unlike some of the elderly Floridians I met at the polls, they are a generation that is growing up largely free of racial hatred and prejudice. The whites among them are used to associating with African-Americans in school and at rock concerts; used to listening to Black musicians; used to seeing Black athletes on television running for touchdowns, scoring baskets, and hitting home runs. Yes, Dodger baseball star Jackie Robinson played a role in yesterday’s big night.

America today is reeling from eight years of the Bush presidency, and Senator McCain suffered mightily from his association with the man that an unbiased press would justly label Public Enemy No. 1---a liar, swindler, and killer of the innocent whose crimes invite prosecution. The victory of the erudite, reflective senator from Illinois could not come at a more critical time for a nation that has lost its way. The challenges he faces are as great as those Lincoln faced in 1861. That’s because it is not enough for Obama to “unify” the nation. He must also cleanse it.


(Sherwood Ross is a Miami-based public relations consultant who formerly worked for major dailies and wire services and in the civil rights movement. Reach him at

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