Though I’m only 53-years-old, in just the space of my memory America has traveled from Jim Crow to Barack Obama: from the back of the bus, to the most powerful office in the world. And I still can’t quite believe it.
In some ways, we’ve come such an unbelievably long way in race relations in this country: in other ways, we’ve hardly moved an inch. Come Tuesday, America will have an African American president. To someone of my generation, those words would once have seemed almost as unlikely as an announcement that Martians had just landed on the top of White House. But here we are.
Yet, in virtually every other aspect of life, black Americans remain miles behind their white counterparts. They are far more likely to be without jobs and decent health care, to languish in prison and even, on average, to die much, much younger.
There is so much left to be done, and yet . . .
I can’t help but think that somewhere Mary Church Terrell is smiling. It was on October 10, 1906 that Terrell gave one of the most extraordinary speeches in American history to the United Women’s Club in Washington, D.C. The superb American Rhetoric website ranks it as the 44th greatest American speech of the 20th century.
Her topic was “What It Means to be Colored in Capital of the U.S.” The whole thing is well worth reading, but here’s a small part:
For fifteen years I have resided in Washington, and while it was far from being a paradise for colored people when I first touched these shores it has been doing its level best ever since to make conditions for us intolerable. As a colored woman I might enter Washington any night, a stranger in a strange land, and walk miles without finding a place to lay my head. Unless I happened to know colored people who live here or ran across a chance acquaintance who could recommend a colored boarding-house to me, I should be obliged to spend the entire night wandering about. Indians, Chinamen, Filipinos, Japanese and representatives of any other dark race can find hotel accommodations, if they can pay for them. The colored man alone is thrust out of the hotels of the national capital like a leper.
As a colored woman I may walk from the Capitol to the White House, ravenously hungry and abundantly supplied with money with which to purchase a meal, without finding a single restaurant in which I would be permitted to take a morsel of food, if it was patronized by white people, unless I were willing to sit behind a screen. As a colored woman I cannot visit the tomb of the Father of this country, which owes its very existence to the love of freedom in the human heart and which stands for equal opportunity to all, without being forced to sit in the Jim Crow section of an electric car which starts form the very heart of the city– midway between the Capital and the White House. If I refuse thus to be humiliated, I am cast into jail and forced to pay a fine for violating the Virginia laws….
As a colored woman I may enter more than one white church in Washington without receiving that welcome which as a human being I have the right to expect in the sanctuary of God. . .
Unless I am willing to engage in a few menial occupations, in which the pay for my services would be very poor, there is no way for me to earn an honest living, if I am not a trained nurse or a dressmaker or can secure a position as teacher in the public schools, which is exceedingly difficult to do. It matters not what my intellectual attainments may be or how great is the need of the services of a competent person, if I try to enter many of the numerous vocations in which my white sisters are allowed to engage, the door is shut in my face.
Not so very long ago, that is what it meant to be a black person in Washington, D.C.
And next Tuesday, in that very same city, an African American will become President of the United States.
All of our national failings notwithstanding, my God, that makes me proud of this nation.