HOPE AND ACCEPTANCE ON
JOURNEY TO EQUALITY
The Hartford Courant
November 6, 2008
WASHINGTON — The night before Election Day
dawned, Barack Obama delivered the final words of
his campaign in northern Virginia. From the small
town of Manassas, he called out to the whole state
- a Republican stronghold - to help him open the
doors of the White House.
"Whatever happens tomorrow, I have been deeply
humbled by this journey," he told more than
80,000 flood-lit faces. "This is our last rally. This
But in a sense, the journey was much older than
that, as the soil of Manassas can attest. It was 147
years ago that the two armies of the Civil War
clashed for the first time very near this fairground
field. The war would start the slow end of slavery's
horrors, and it opened a new road for African
Americans, a road kept open by their own endless
list of fighters.
Frederick Douglass. Harriet Tubman. Mary
McLeod Bethune. Martin Luther King Jr.
The morning after Obama became the latest to earn
his place among them, a 25-year-old named
Thomas Cannon had it all in his mind as he climbed
the stone steps to the Lincoln Memorial. The black
man from Dallas, in town to audition his Juilliard-
trained opera voice at the Washington National
Opera, looked around the inner chamber of the
memorial, where the massive, seated president
seems to absorb sound, leaving it quiet as a church.
"This is the beginning of it," Cannon said, looking
at the walls carved with the words of President
Lincoln. On one wall, Lincoln's second inaugural
address and its regret over the offense of slavery
and the war it brought. On the other wall, the brief
Gettysburg Address, promising a "new birth of
This was the beginning, Cannon said, but the end
hasn't been reached. "We're somewhere in the
middle," he said, happy to see Obama's election
mark that middle distance.
He had followed the vote tallies with a friend all
Tuesday night. When Obama won, the friend
opened a window and shouted into the night. But
Cannon, the opera singer, could find no voice. "I
was just beyond myself," he said. "Sometimes,
silence is best."
As he walked down the memorial steps, he passed
an easy-to-miss carving in one of the landings. "I
HAVE A DREAM," it says. It has the name
Martin Luther King Jr. under it, and a date, Aug.
28, 1963. This is where, 45 years ago, King
delivered his dream to a crowded National Mall -
the message from black America that white
America heard louder than any before.
People crouched beside it Wednesday, taking
pictures of the words, putting Obama buttons and
newspaper front pages beside it. As she bent to
read it, a woman said, "My heart is pounding." She
announced to herself that the dream is realized.
Still, most of the city around her is more cautious
Washington is not just the seat of the country's
government. It's a place of history. It's a place with
old pains. And, it's a place populated mostly by
people who nurtured a daring hope that somebody
who looks like them would one day live in the
Six in 10 people who live in the city are black.
Leon Martin probably would have been able to tell
you as much back when he worked at the U.S.
Census Bureau. But at 73, he's retired now, living
on his own with a memory that reaches back to a
segregated South. He'd never been involved in
politics, until now. He volunteered for Obama,
making phone calls in Virginia. He also contributed
money to the campaign.
Walking from his polling place Tuesday morning,
he said the same thing that so many other older
black voters have said: "We never would have
thought we'd see it in our lifetimes."
He didn't really believe in the possibility himself,
he said, until the controversy over the Rev.
Jeremiah Wright, Obama's former pastor. Martin
understood where Wright's anger came from - that
same long road he had traveled, too. When Martin
thought of race relations in America, he thought of
a photograph that had been published in Jet
magazine long ago, when he was a college student
in North Carolina. It was a photo of the face of a
black youth who had been lynched. "What is my
life worth?" he had asked himself then.
Half a century later, he watched Obama stand to
speak about race. The candidate talked about an
older generation who had a hard time releasing old
anger. "We did carry an anger," Martin said.
Hearing Obama say it, he said, "It just made me
feel that he was touching something." Martin's own
voice wavered as he recalled the moment. "I said
then that that guy knows what the heck he's doing."
Washington's poll lines were often long Tuesday.
But there was a glad spirit in them. Nine out of 10
people in the lines were voting for Obama and were
confident that he would win - confident in their
heads, but not yet feeling the victory.
That night, the lines to vote turned into lines
outside just about every public place in which
televisions were tuned to election reporting. The
bars and restaurants of Capitol Hill were jammed
with congressional staff members watching their
bosses' fates. The Republican and Democratic
national committees partied at hotels a block apart,
not far from the White House - filling posh
ballrooms to eat and drink while the results came in.
But as exit polls, district results and red and blue
splotches on the electoral map showed momentum
toward the inevitable, the rest of the city celebrated.
U Street is a center of black D.C. - an area known
40 years ago for the riots that threatened to tear
down the city after King's assassination. At
midnight Tuesday, it was - in the words of one
man who was there - "a happy riot."
But by Wednesday morning, Obama's D.C.
returned to daily life. Vermell Terrell, 64, had
awakened early for work at the Lincoln Waffle
Shop - across the street from Ford's Theater, where
Lincoln was shot. She hadn't slept long. Like a lot
of people in the city, she watched the election
results into the early morning hours, having a hard
time believing what she was seeing. "Sitting there,
crying like a fool. For real, all by myself."
Eventually, she had picked up a photo of her
mother, who died in 1985.
"I know you know," she said to her mom about 3 a.
m. "He's now the president. The president of the
United States. Do you believe that?" She asked her
mom to pray for Obama.
At work serving shrimp plates, country fried
steaks and Sloppy Joe platters to customers on
stools, Terrell was giddy. "My body's here. I'm not
here. I'm still out there on that other planet
somewhere." She said, "Reality gonna kick in, and
we all gonna notice it's a dream."
She smiled broadly under the orange brim of her
"Obama for President" hat. "I never thought it
would get to this."
On U Street, Nizam Ali wore an Obama T-shirt to
work Wednesday at Ben's Chili Bowl, a D.C.
institution started by his folks. The restaurant had
a decent lunch crowd to consume the rows of half-
smoke hot dogs waiting on the grill, and one of the
employees behind the counter was singing,
inserting Obama's name into a song from the juke
"The one thing that's always been missing in the
black community is hope," Ali said. But the nation
saw a black family become its first family Tuesday
night, he said. "It looks like our family, their
family," Ali said. On that stage in Chicago's Grant
Park was the hope.
In his Southwest D.C. apartment, Martin spent
election night watching Virginia numbers that
stubbornly refused to settle themselves. Like so
many other people in Washington, he looked to
that southern neighbor, because if it went for
Obama, everything would be OK. When it finally
did, he knew.
"Usually, guys don't like to admit they get misty-
eyed," he said. "But it was an emotional thing. ...
You think about the wrongs that have been done to
you, and now it turns around and is all seemingly
right. I think things are going to be much better."
But Martin has some worry for Obama, too. "You
start thinking about the responsibility he's going to
In that hour in nearby Manassas, just before the
day in which he would be chosen to lead, Obama
seemed to have those same thoughts. "The
American story has never been about things coming
easy," he said. He told the crowd that this might be
the toughest new presidency since Franklin D.
Roosevelt took over during the Great Depression.
"You can do it!" a woman yelled from the audience.
Obama said, "I asked you to believe."
And another woman shouted, "We do!"