On November 4, 2008, I boarded a plane for Memphis just before polling places closed in the East. Stepping off the plane three hours later, I asked the first person I saw, an African American baggage handler, "Do you know who won the election?" He proceeded to give me a complete breakdown of Electoral College results and which states Barack Obama would need to clinch victory. I got a strong clue as to what this election meant to a people who have spent far more years oppressed than liberated by democracy.
The next day I toured the National Civil Rights Museum, built around the motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. For several hours, I revisited the scenes I had known so well as a teenager coming of age in the South. The brave college students in Greensboro, North Carolina, who sat at a lunch counter as goons stamped out cigarettes in their hair, squirted mustard and ketchup in their faces, then kicked them while white policemen looked on, laughing. The eerie scenes of weightless children flying through mist in Birmingham, propelled by high-powered fire hoses. The Freedom Ride bus burned in Alabama, the corpses unburied in Mississippi.
Looking back, it seems incredible that such ferocity was directed against people who were seeking the basic ingredients of human dignity: the right to vote, to eat in restaurants and stay in motels, to attend college. (Two hundred National Guard troops escorted James Meredith to his first class; even so, people died in the ensuing riots.)
Outside the museum, words from King's final "I have been to the mountaintop" speech are forged in steel, words that caught in my throat on a sunny day mere hours after Obama was elected: "I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight ...