This is America Now
I’m an old man, now. My hands are dry, boney, and don’t move as good as they used to; the cold night air don’t help none with that. My voice comes out like a smoker’s when it comes out at all. But I’ve seen a spell of history, and I’ve a mind to tell about it.
But first, there’s a something came before even my time. In 1863, with the stroke of a pen not the sword, Lincoln ended slavery. Of course, we recognize today he didn’t end racism, or even inequality, but it forced us all to take that first staggered step together.
I was part of the 332nd Fighter Group out of Tuskegee, not part of the original 99th pursuit squadron, but among the 445 who fought in the Mediterranean. The Redtails had one of the best escort records of the war (though it wasn’t perfect, as the legends came to say). Of course, we knew, like the slaves who fought in the Revolution, the Buffalo Soldiers that followed, or any of the other blacks who've been building this country from the beginning, we were only taking steps towards being free men.
I marched on Washington with the late Reverend, Dr. King; it was conceived as a terrifying spectacle to force the political machinery to recognize us. Kennedy pleaded against that; he explained the world as a sea of moderation, where righteous men must navigate with care, lest they stir the tides be swallowed by angry waters.
Kennedy, like Lincoln, needed time. Maybe freedom wasn’t something a white man, however well-meaning, could give us- maybe it was something we had to get for ourselves. Folks might say that ain’t fair, whites never had to fight for their due; “fair” is a word for people too sheltered to see the world is anything but.
Kennedy, like Lincoln, died with things undone, and in death, both men did more than they could in life. But still, it’s taken time. Our struggle has robbed us of leaders and brothers, Evers, King, Malcolm X, and so many, many others. But it feels like time. The NAACP turns 100 this year; the Reverend himself would have turned 80. I haven’t always had occasion to believe, myself, but it would seem today’d be a fine day to thank God almighty.
In the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson, a slave-owning man who lacked the courage for his convictions, wrote that “All men are created equal.” It took a hundred years or more for similar words to find themselves in the Constitution, and more than a hundred years past that to ring them true.
The Reverend spoke from the west, from the steps of the Lincoln memorial; the President from the East, on the steps of the Capitol Building. The Reverend’s speech was a sunset, and in the eve after the warmth, we shared a dream. The President is our sunrise. That’s why I’m standing in this crisp evening air, and why I’m going to stand on this lawn a while longer, to wait and see that sun rise back up. I’ve waited this long to feel this sun on my face, I can wait a few hours longer.