A little over a month ago, just as it was becoming clear that Barack Obama would win the election, I happened to be reading several commentaries on the Civil Rights Movement written by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, whose theology was an important influence on Martin Luther King Jr. The final paragraph of one written in 1963 puts last night's election results in perspective as well as anything I've seen:
"Attorney General Robert Kennedy was probably too optimistic in his recent analogy between the history of the Irish and the Negroes in America. After pointing out that an Irish Catholic was elected President less than a century after the anti-Irish riots of the 'know nothing' movement, he predicted that a Negro could be elected President in another half century. But the analogy is not exact. The Irish merely affronted us by having a different religion and a different place of origin than 'true' Americans. The Negroes affront us by diverging from the dominant type all to obviously. Their skin is black. And our celebrated reason is too errant to digest the difference."
Bobby Kennedy was right. To echo comments Bill made when Obama won the Democratic nomination, whether or not one agrees with Obama's policies, he ran a brilliant campaign and has achieved a victory that would have seemed unfathomable even a few years ago. His election is monumental in the most literal sense. Two small illustrations: yesterday afternoon I watched a middle aged black man videotaping his trip to the polling place to cast his vote. And this morning, driving my children to school, I passed a McCain-Palin sign in someone's front yard, now partially covered by a handwritten sign on which the McCain supporter had written, "Congratulations, Mr. Obama."