On the night Barack Obama was elected president and in the days that followed, I was down in Memphis, arguably the most racially divided city in the U.S. To this day a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a lieutenant general in the Confederate Army during the Civil War and the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan still stands prominently in Memphis' central park. And the city's population remains mostly divided by the freeway "loop" that neatly separates whites from blacks.
As we (most of CRM's senior leadership) met with African American pastors and community leaders during the week, their pride in what had just happened was palpable. But it wasn't loud. It wasn't even triumphant. It was closer to shock. It almost felt like the men and women we met with were lost in the wonder of the moment and were still wondering if it had really happened, or if it was all just a dream.
Just 40 years earlier Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated on a balcony just outside his room at the Lorraine Motel in downtown Memphis. The motel has been converted into the National Civil Rights Museum and it was something we wanted to experience. It was a bit surreal for us to be there just hours after the election, knowing that the President-Elect of our country could not have even sat with us or eaten with us just 40 years ago, let alone lead us. I would have expected the place to be party central on November 5th, but It was nearly empty. There were no celebrations at the motel or in the streets...at least not the streets we walked. King had talked about a day when an African American would become president of United States, but his forecast of a black president within 25 years had long since elapsed and for many his dreams had long since been tempered.
One African American leader told us, "You know, we've always told our children they could become anything they wanted to become in this country, but not the president. Today, for the first time, I can look my kids in the eye and honestly tell them they can become anything they want to become, and now I don't have to add 'but'."
To see the wonder in their faces and to hear the hope in their voices was enough for me to celebrate the choice our country made.