What's wrong with hope?
One March morning in 1965 I sat on porch steps in Montgomery, Ala., listening to the story of a middle-aged World War II veteran, a recipient of the Purple Heart from the battle of Iwo Jima, who was unable to vote because he was black. I was a young, white college professor, a Catholic nun, and I was in Montgomery accompanying students from Carlow University (then Mount Mercy College), the University of Pittsburgh and Duquesne University on the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march. Hundreds of students and faculty from all over the United States had gathered to take part.
Idealistic and full of enthusiasm for social change, especially to ensure that black Americans could vote, we were shocked by what we experienced during those few days in Montgomery. We encountered the hate-fueled violence of Gov. George Wallace's police who, mounted on horseback, attacked us as we marched through the streets singing Gospel hymns and protest songs. People all over the country witnessed this on TV.
Some marchers were injured seriously enough to be taken to hospitals. Families in the adjacent black neighborhood opened their homes to provide us refuge from the whip-wielding deputies. We gathered there, hundreds of young people, black and white, awaiting the arrival of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose presence would bring order to the chaos.
As I listened to the veteran's story, I was aware that I had already voted in two presidential elections, having automatically become eligible when I turned 21. When he reported to vote after returning from the war, he was told he had to pass an eligibility test: to recite from memory the U.S. Constitution. He couldn't do it, so he couldn't vote.
The Selma march and that porch conversation were life-altering events for me. I would not take my citizen's rights for granted ever again, and I could not live comfortably with the knowledge that American brothers and sisters were live live comfortably with the knowledge that American brothers and sisters were unable to exercise those rights simply because they were born with black skin.
America has progressed since those days of upheaval and racial violence in 1965. We are not yet to the goal of full racial equality and harmony, but we are on the way. A black man is now a major-party candidate for president of the United States.
I voted for Barack Obama in the primary elections last May, and I will vote for him in November. My choice is guided by Mr. Obama's competence, vision, values and political promise. I see in his candidacy hope for America's future. He has the potential to become the kind of transformative leader who can tap into the best of American culture and enable us to return to the animating values of the founders of this nation. He cares about those who are poor and marginalized.
Some of the political pundits want to identify the theme of hope in Mr. Obama's campaign as simply nice words. Not so; not so. Aside from the senator's accomplishments and personal qualities, the fact that a black person can not only vote in 2008, but is in fact a major-party nominee for the presidency, is evidence to the contrary.
Barack Obama did not just suddenly drop out of the sky into American politics. His candidacy and America's readiness for it grew out of the hopes of those hundreds of students in Montgomery in 1965; it grew from the ministerial leadership in black churches in the decades after Dr. King; it grew from the efforts of legislators and political leaders committed to civil rights for all; it grew from hundreds of thousands of decent people, black and white, who know that hope is a tangible reality that can animate us to work together for the common good.
All of this makes me glad. I hope the World War II veteran whose story I heard in Montgomery in 1965 is still alive and able to relish this moment.
First Published August 31, 2008 12:00 am