By William E. Pannell, Senior Professor of Preaching
The high water mark for me in this election year came with the opening words of Barack Obama when he faced that remarkable crowd in the Denver stadium. He had come, he said, “to accept the nomination of the Democratic Party for the presidency of the United States of America.” That is when I almost lost it. Never, ever, in all my dreams and expectations as an American, did I imagine that moment. Black leaders had addressed the Convention before. No better speech about this nation could be made than Jesse Jackson’s before the Convention in 1984. But speeches are one thing. Black people have been called upon to makes speeches before predominantly white audiences throughout our history. I have made a few myself, albeit not at this level of course. But we didn’t expect those same groups to nominate us as their president. Before that night, the only black president America ever had was Bill Clinton. Or so the story went. But that opening sentence that night made history, political and emotional history, for many Americans no matter their ethnicity.
Perspective helps when reflecting on Barack Obama’s election as the 44th president of the United States of America. For instance, I recall a flight between evangelistic meetings. It was the mid-sixties. I had secured a comfortable seat, and a couple of my favorite magazines. Those were the days when the airlines actually took thinking people seriously and one could find an array of magazines available for those who were swift of foot to snatch them. So I had grabbed an Esquire magazine. Garry Wills had just completed a national tour of riot-torn cities, seeking answers for the carnage and “unrest.” He had spent most of this time riding in police cars and had come to view police systems as outposts of an army of occupation—combat systems, he called them. His major finding confirmed my experience as an urban dweller during those days: “The white man does not think of his country as white; but he is careful to keep it that way.”
This conclusion was a succinct summation of what the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders reported a year earlier. Their conclusion was that “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal…that to pursue our present course will involve the continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values.” These conclusions may have shocked white America, but they were ho-hum findings to black Americans. We lived, for all practical purposes, in two different worlds: same city, different worlds; same schools, different worlds; same churches, different worlds; same country, “another country,” to quote James Baldwin. The response to these findings, fueled by the grisly images on television of burning cities, was somewhat predictable given the American penchant to deal with emergencies quickly. We threw money at the cities; not enough to make a longstanding difference, but just enough to calm the natives whose restlessness had caused the disturbance. To make matters even worse, there was Vietnam. Guns, but little butter. If one needs perspective, consider that when Barack Obama was born, in 1961, black Americans could not vote in parts of this country, and those who tried could be lynched for their efforts.
But Bob Dylan was right, the times they were a-changin’. Conservatives would fight against it; right-leaning Christians would learn from the strategy of the Civil Rights movement and get involved in politics, thus insuring the continued swing of Americans to the right in both religion and politics. And fueled by the hate tactics of key strategists in both parties, the country grew more restive and angry as the sixties merged into the seventies, giving way to the successive regimes of Nixon, Carter, Reagan et al, and finally the disaster of Bush and Cheney. The House was still White. Of course.
But the world was changing faster than even the pundits could account for. The Cold War was over, replaced by an even more sophisticated version of colonialism. The United States had become the most powerful and wealthy nation in human history, and capitalism threatened to triumph over every other “ism” vying for international dominance in the marketplace. The world, in the words of one commentator, was coming reluctantly together and falling precipitously apart at the same time. Yet even among black Americans there had been reasons to hope that King’s dream could become reality. A chief of police here, a mayor there, an activist elected to Congress, a black woman as the first from her race to serve as a member of a cabinet, a black woman from Brooklyn/Harlem running for president. Talk about audacity, Shirley! But no one, black or white, Latino, Italian, or Irishman, expected to see the change that Obama represents. No political leader in the so-called free world, nor in any of the non-white nations of the globe, could have foreseen this. The hopes and fears of a global network of people, poor and rich, whose dreams for the good life centered on the well-being of this country, could ever have imagined that a man who was part African and part Kansan could become a focus of their dreams. Or that such an election could signal the possibility that this country could revive its rightful place as a disciplined, compassionate, and trusted partner in foreign affairs.
Obama didn’t bring about this change, he inherited it. Invisible shoulders carried him aloft, and voices from down home called him to a level of leadership even he did not know he possessed. Voices: Schwerner, Hamer, Hunter-Gault, Perkins, Jackson; politicians, judges, a couple of presidents, a general or two from within the Pentagon; black voices, white voices, Jewish voices; and those marching feet, those prayer meetings, those courageous kids walking the gauntlet of jeering crowds to attend some high school or college. And the sermons, those soaring cadences of hope anchored in the conviction that God was just, sermons that kept that hope alive and enabled the church in black America to become the conscience of America. Sermons and preachers: King, Shutlesworth, Taylor, Lawson, Abernathy, and white judges from the Fifth Circuit, dubbed “the four” in derision by their colleagues, but without whom the case for a nation under law for all Americans would not have succeeded: Elbert Tuttle, John Brown, John Minor Wisdom and Richard Rives, representing the lovely woman carrying the tablets in her arm.
The country had changed, radically and dramatically, since the struggles of the sixties and seventies. But it took Obama’s campaign to reveal just how much change had occurred. If he called for change, he did so with the growing realization that a new America had emerged and was waiting for a voice to call it to action. These were the spiritual descendants of those brave and wacky visionaries whose heads had been beaten in Grant Park in the sixties. A new generation, weary of the same old “same-ole,” saw in this man a chance for idealism to supplant cynicism, and the promise that Americans could actually make a difference in their own country. They gathered in Grant Park by the thousands to celebrate a coming of age in America. The times have changed and we cannot go back to the old order.
Gary Wills would need to rewrite his assessment about America today. So would I. Of course there are still glaring inequities, wars that must be terminated, health care to be assured, homeless people cared for, to name only a few. Racism is still a burden to be borne by all of us, and then there is the economy. Have mercy! But the election told the world that white folks have matured beyond their captivity to the reigning ideology of the nation, the “rightness of whiteness.” We are no longer a country divided, separate but unequal...for the most part. Obama’s victory forces all of us to readjust our biases. We, along with the rest of the world, and especially new immigrants “yearning to be free,” needed to hear his opening remarks. “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.” Ah, what a splendid conservative, and if he continues to remind us that democracy requires sacrifice, and that those sacrifices must include Wall Street, the auto industry and greedy oil companies, we may continue on the road to fulfilling the dream.
Oh, and this, if you still doubt that change is happening: last year Chapchai Nirat from Thailand won the Vietnam Open golf tournament. Where? Hanoi, of course.
William E. (Bill) Pannell, senior professor of preaching, joined Fuller’s faculty in 1974, prior to which he was the first African-American to serve on Fuller's Board of Trustees. A gifted preacher and professor of homiletics, Dr. Pannell has nurtured several generations of Fuller students from the classroom to the pulpit.