January 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy addressed a waiting nation with an inaugural speech that lifted a weary, cynical world. Part of that speech included, “Let the word go forth from this time and place . . . to friend and foe alike . . . that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.”
My last choice for a president in 2009 is any Republican. (However I will not vote for him if he becomes the GOP candidate, Senator John McCain is entitled to every American’s respect and appreciation, and no one will hear me whisper the first note of disrespect concerning one of this nation’s finest.) My first choice was Senator Joe Biden. My first choice of those with any real chance of actually winning the election this next November is Senator John Edwards. But now you too have a choice to make. You have a choice to make that will in large measure define your future. My most fervent hope is that you not demur the opportunity nor shirk the responsibility.
I was raised in sublime naivety. Detroit was and to a genuine measure yet seems a morally terrible doughnut: a black center surrounded by an almost entirely white periphery. I knew nothing of its vicious depravity. As a youngster, perhaps I just didn’t want to investigate what otherwise was an idyllic environment; clean suburbia typified by generally solid school systems that facilitated all the upward mobility our parents wished for.
But in the fall of 1964, while stationed in Fort Benning, Georgia, on a Saturday pass, I crossed the Chattahoochee River into Phoenix City, Alabama. Without having given it a second thought, I’d been eating, sleeping, toiling, suffering the indignities of Army basic and advanced infantry training with young men from all parts of America, representing all races and ethnicities. But what I saw across a river that composed more than just a natural boundary between states, a boundary that defined the partition between third-world thinking and culture and the world my theretofore idealistic eyes believed was America, worked to redefine every impression of my country and my heart. “Coloreds Only” and “Whites Only” drinking fountains and restrooms, and the former were poor, at best, mockeries of any notion of either equal or equivalent; fouled basins and rickety wooded doors around back that I’d no inclination whatsoever to inspect.
I lived in the Tampa Bay area for three and a half years, from 2003 to August, 2007. And in far, far too many yards and on the tailgates of far, far too many pick-up trucks the “Stars ‘n Bars” flag of the Confederacy, the icon of the worst bigotry, as morally despicable as any Third Reich Swastika banner, can be found; a middle-finger, in-your-face challenging assault on any prayer to human decency!
John Kennedy lit a fire that raged in the hearts of my generation. Civil rights, first for black Americans, then to wipe the stains of discrimination that had been as unscalable walls limiting the opportunities that should have been available for every held-in-check group became targets. There were marches of hundreds of thousands and gatherings of millions protesting wrongs that never, ever should have been. And the walls began to fall.
But then — Why? I truly do not know ‘why’ my generation let the fires go out, or ‘why’ my generation turned cynical and self-centered, and turned our backs on the fine and necessary works we had begun. The truth is, to America’s and the world’s tragic disadvantage, we did.
Thursday in Iowa, although — as I said — not my first choice, I felt a breaking dam of joy-filled tears begin its rushing charge across the land. A young mixed-race American man stood tall. His smile beamed a message of genuine hope across not just our own sea-to-shining-sea, but that spanned the globe; a world filled with souls looking for an America they had craned their necks hard to see. Once again, a torch has been passed to a new generation: yours.
To grasp it, however you must stretch your arms and seize it. Please, please, please . . . do not let the chance pass you by. In a few days I’ll turn 62. I can warrant this: those chances happen your way but once or twice in an entire lifetime, and the propensity to settle for less can dash the best hopes of a world that struggles to keep the fleeting ethers of hope in their lungs.
I love you.— Your Dad.