Anniversaries are, strictly speaking, not necessary, but neither is art, friendship or many other of the most important things in life. We observe them by taking time out of the present to remember the past. It is a way of “marking time,” of measuring ourselves against the great and the bad who have foregone us.
The Library of Congress is exhibiting drafts of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in his own hand, in honor of its 150th anniversary. I recommend viewing these profound two pages of Lincoln’s cursive, which show us both the boldness and the vulnerability of the greatest of our leaders.
It is hard to believe how long ago it was: not very long at all. A century and a half is, from the perspective of history, or even a lifetime, not much. It is two lifetimes, back to back. In the course of human history, it is a dream of a shadow; from the perspective of universal history, it is nothing at all.
Yet on Martin Luther King Jr. Day of all days, the United States inaugurated its first black president for the second time.
King rose about a century after the Emancipation Proclamation, one long lifetime’s distance. Even in that time, as difficult and full of hatred and scorn as it was, remarkable, astounding progress was made, not just among the “Talented Tenth” of whom W.E.B. DuBois wrote, but among the entire black community and, indeed, the nation as a whole. Fighting in two world wars had made men more tolerant of those from different religions and backgrounds; desegregation of the armed forces made them see through the foolishness of racial prejudice.
Blacks, despite what the Left’s revisionist history might say, achieved great successes. Black poverty fell at a faster rate before 1960s welfare programs than after them. Blacks had comparable percentages of two-parent households and labor force participation rates as whites did until 1960s government programs reduced the incentive to marry and work.
But we have made no less meteoric progress since the 1960s. For decades, the prospect of a black president seemed so symbolic in many minds and, while I disagree with Barack Obama on most of his policies, and while he did significantly lose the white vote, his election to the presidency shows how far we have come.
I spent the evening of that heady day celebrating another milestone: the elevation of Tim Scott to the U.S. Senate. The senator himself was present, as was Rep. Joe Wilson, also of South Carolina, my brother, South Carolina Democratic state Sen. Kent Williams, Dr. Ben Carson, the director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital, A.R. Bernard, the founder of the Christian Culture Center in New York, and others.
We even had the honor of receiving former Nigerian Secretary of Commerce and Tourism Otunba Bola Kuforiji, a woman of firsts. “I was overcome with pride and with gratitude to God that I could celebrate, with white friends and with black friends alike, the healing of our nation’s self-inflicted wounds.” It is, in so many ways, a wonderful time to be alive, and to be an American.
Consider also, as I did, that the Supreme Court is debating the constitutionality of affirmative action (Fisher v. University of Texas). With a few strokes of the keyboard, the Supreme Court justices could shake our country at the foundations. I do not expect that the law will change, but if it does, it will usher in a new phase in our history. It would begin to draw a line between post-‘60s-era state activism and an unknown but hopeful future in race relations.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is also under legal scrutiny for its implications for voter identification requirements. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. — the nation’s first black attorney general — challenges the constitutionality of such requirements, alleging that they are impediments to voters trying to exercise their rights and the functional equivalent of poll taxes. But do we not all long for the day when the “covered jurisdictions” of that statute need no longer be covered? Can we not all — Democrats, Republicans, black, white — agree that this is a consummation devoutly to be wished?
I am encouraged, and I have faith in our country. As we mark these historic events, we also mark the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton. If only we could make the kind of progress we have made with race with the unborn. But I have faith that, as King put it, that the arc of history bends toward justice.
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