20 January 2009

Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace
according to thy word;
for mine eyes have seen they salvation ...
Today, I understand the words of Simeon more than I have in the past. Like him, I have witnessed something I never, in my wildest imagination, thought I would actually live long enough to see.

When I was a child my two of my parents' best friends were an elderly couple, Clarence and Ellen Daniels. They were as much a part of our daily life as breakfast was and they were like second parents to me. If I disappeared and mom couldn't find me, I'd usually be found at the Daniel's house. That meant I had to wander across the highway to get here. I was about four years old back then.

What is remarkable about all of that is that Clarence and Ellen were black -- no, they were Negros; black was a derogatory term then. When the home they rented became available for purchase, they asked to buy the house but were told that "no uppity [Negros] were going to own property in this town." I didn't understand; I was too young. In fact, I still don't understand it. All I knew was that two people I loved were moving from my daily life. Mom said that I "moaped (?) around for a week."

Ellen tried to explain it to me, but finally, all she could say was "Jimmy, some things are just wrong and that's just the way they are. But maybe when you're all grown up, things will be different."

But the most remarkable part of the story is the legacy they left me -- a gift I cherish. Clarence and Ellen were both the children of slaves.

I was held, hugged and loved by the children of slaves. One person separates me from the horrible reality of slavery. I remember Ellen telling me about the scars around her father's ankles from the iron fetters rubbing the skin off his body. (Clarence had scars on his back from a bull whipping Klan members gave him when he was nine years old because they thought Clarence was getting too "uppity.")

For me, slavery is not a remote event in the history books. The viciousness of hatred is not a remote concept. I have a physical personal, emotional and spiritual connection to that era. Arms that caressed me were caressed by former slaves. I wore the shirt that Ellen's father wore the day the Union Army freed him from slavery.

Like Simeon and Anna, this white boy never thought he would live to see this day. But here I am, and there he is, and there they are! A black president of the United States. An openly gay and partnered bishop praying at an official inauguration event. Young, old, male, female, black, white, yellow, brown, red skinned, gay, straight, bisexual, transgendered Americans standing shoulder to shoulder to witness the dawn of a new day of possibilities.

I'm not so arrogant to think I truly understand what today means to Americans of colour or what it means to those who lived though the evils of segregation. But I do know what it means to a middle aged white boy; and it feels good - dang good. But I know this is not the end of the journey. This is just a place to pause and celebrate how far we've come.

In his last public appearance, LBJ, speaking of the Civil Rights struggle made a remarkable prophecy:
Let's watch what's been done, and see that it is preserved, but let's say we have just begun, and let's go on. Until every boy and girl born in this land can stand on the same level ground, our job will not be done.

We've proved that great progress is possible, we know how much remains to be done. And if our efforts continue, and if our will is strong, and if our hearts are right, and if courage remains our constant companion -- then I am confident we shall overcome.
As I watched the roll call of the Civil Rights movment arrive for the inauguration, I could not hep but remember the three men who made today possible; I'm positive I saw them standing there next to The President as he took the Oath of Office: Jack, Martin and Bobby as they passed the torch of hope to a new man.

When it's all over today, I'm going to drive to a town five miles north of me and go to the city park. And I'm going to drink from the same fountain from which Clarence and Ellen could not drink. And I'm going to say, "Free at last, free at last; Thank God Almighty, Free at Last!"

I rarely drink alcohol for many reasons, but I purchased a bottle of very good champagne for this day. I have opened it and filled three champagne glasses. One glass is for me. The other two are for Clarence and Ellen. And I know that they are right here with me.

So, here's to you, Clarence and Ellen.

PS - If I were the new President, I'd gather my wife and kids tonight and we'd all seep in the Lincoln bed!