“I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go to the mountain. And I've looked over, and I've seen the promised land! I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.’’
These prophetic words, uttered by Martin Luther King Jr. shortly before he was assassinated, capture the historic milestone that Barack Obama has achieved.
Forty years after King delivered that speech and was murdered for his efforts to bring about racial justice in the United States, we stand at the threshold of the promised land.
As the first black person elected as president of the United States, Obama is an inspiration to many of us from the African Diaspora, especially those who can remember not being allowed to vote simply because of their race.
The optimism and hope of so many who came before us, including our parents and grandparents who told us this day was coming (even though we found it hard to believe them), seem to have found their way into the soul of Barack Obama, who embodies their historic vision.
As we look forward to the light of a brighter day, we must not forget the ancestors who made it possible.
In many African cultures, people who have died enjoy a superhuman status, and they are believed to have spiritual powers that can influence the living here on earth.
I wonder what these ancestors of ours would say, if they were alive to see this moment in their lifetimes.
If you look closely at what they said when they were alive, you can see their vision and hope for this day. If you listen even more closely, you might even be able to hear them rejoicing at the culmination of their efforts.
Take Thurgood Marshall, the first black U.S. Supreme Court Justice, for example.
“None of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps,’’ Marshall once said, presaging Obama’s message of hope for the masses. “We got here because somebody – a parent, a teacher, an Ivy League crony or a few nuns – bent down and helped us pick up our boots.’’
Marshall also said, “A child born to a black mother in a state like Mississippi… has exactly the same rights as a white baby born to the wealthiest person in the United States. It's not true, but I challenge anyone to say it is not a goal worth working for.’’
We are a lot closer to that goal now than we used to be, thanks to Marshall and so many others who came before us.
In other ways, the ancestors have found their voice directly in Obama’s words.
Just days ago, for example, as Obama was urging his supporters to come out in large numbers and vote, he said, “Power concedes nothing without a fight.’’
Did he realize he was almost directly quoting Frederick Douglass, the first black person nominated as a vice presidential candidate?
Douglass once said, “Power concedes nothing without demand. It never has and never will.’’
Or maybe Obama was channeling black nationalist Malcolm X, who once said, “Power never takes a back step – only in the face of more power.’’
He might have also been inspired by Medgar Evers, the civil rights activist who was gunned down in his driveway after standing up for desegregation.
“If we don't like what the Republicans do, we need to get in there and change it,’’ Evers once said.
I can hear the voice of Harriet Tubman, who ushered so many slaves to freedom, saying, almost in a state of disbelief, “I looked at my hands, to see if I was the same person now that I was free. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over de fields, and I felt like I was in heaven.’’
Or Rosa Parks, the mother of the civil rights movement, who famously took her seat on a segregated bus, inspiring the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
I can almost hear Parks today, saying to Obama, “My son, I sat down so that you could stand up for truth and justice in America.’’
Then, I can just about picture Obama’s mother and grandmother, now joined in heaven with abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth.
I can hear them all saying, in unison, “I raised the first black president of the United States. And ain’t I a woman?!!’’
Or Mary McLeod Bethune, the educator and civil rights leader who founded Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, making the case through Obama’s life story that education is the great equalizer in America.
As Obama and his supporters have outspent, outnumbered, out-organized, and out-maneuvered his white rivals en route to the Oval Office, surely Bethune and the other ancestors must be proud.
It’s almost like they knew this day was coming, and they told us so.
“When they learn of Shakespeare and Goethe, we must teach them of Pushkin and Dumas,’’ Bethune once said. “Whatever the white man has done, we have done, and often better.’’
Brad Bennett is the executive editor of the South Florida Times.