Barack Obama’s election as the first African-American president of the United States does not mean Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of racial justice has been fully realized—but it’s a lot closer to reality than ever before, some black religious leaders said.
Marvin Griffin, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Austin, spoke of Obama’s election as “a manifestation of how far we have come.”
“I never dreamed I would live to see this day come to pass,” 85-year-old Griffin said.
As the first African-American graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, he recalled the segregated schools, separate public accommodations and poll taxes of the last century.
He pointed to the election of the nation’s first African-American president as evidence of “growth in every quarter—in religion, education, constitutional changes—that contributed toward making this possible.”
He particularly noted the sacrifices of civil rights leaders—some who gave their lives—so people of color in the United States could make their voices heard.
Frederick D. Haynes III, pastor of Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas, echoed the same refrain.
“It is a phenomenal sign of the progress we have made, thanks to the sacrifices of others who have gone before,” Haynes said. “Their shed blood fertilized the ground out of which this amazing—even miraculous—accomplishment has grown, and we are reaping the fruit of their labors.”
Griffin described America’s progress in race relations—and human relations—in terms of a journey.
“We have come a long way and taken great strides toward the humanizing of our society,” he said. “We still have a distance to travel, but we have come a long way.”
Obama’s election sends a positive message to young people of all races and backgrounds—but particularly children of color, Griffin added.
“The door is open. We can ascend to reach our highest aspirations,” he said.
Jeff Haggray, executive director of the District of Columbia Baptist Convention, agreed. He described the message Obama’s election teaches his sons, ages 8 and 9, and his 4-year-old daughter.
“It means they can be anything they feel called to be, if they work hard enough,” Haggray said.
Obama’s election marks “a significant milestone in American history,” he said. “Of course, he is not the first person of color to achieve something great, but (his election) transcends every other achievement and surpasses all other milestones.”
Haynes recalled King’s dream of the Beloved Community, and he said the election of an African-American president signified “a huge step, if not a quantum leap, in that direction.”
Aidsand F. Wright-Riggins, executive director of American Baptist National Ministries, offered a more cautious appraisal. He called Obama’s election “a giant step toward the commencement of serious racial dialogue, rather than a graduation from America’s often-racist past.”
King’s vision of “the Beloved Community did not miraculously appear around midnight … as Obama moved past the magic 270 electoral college votes he needed,” Wright-Riggins noted.
“America proved itself capable of electing an African-American, Harvard-educated, Hyde Park resident, best-selling author as its 44th president. That is commendable and a tremendous cultural leap for this country and well worth applauding,” he said.
But he asked, “Is that same America capable of addressing a criminal justice system that incarcerated people of color at rates far out of proportion to their population in this country? That and similar questions remain on the conversational agenda.”
Obama’s freedom to succeed or fail on the basis of his character and vision rather than his race remains an open question, Wright-Riggins said.
Having cleared the hurdle of Election Day, Obama now faces the obstacle of winning over Americans who did not vote for him, Haggray noted.
“His challenge is to convince all those people he is their president, too,” he said.
And white Americans must learn a lesson African-Americans long have had to deal with regarding people in positions of authority—trusting a leader who is different.
“It’s a fundamental act of trust to say that even though he doesn’t look like us or share our personal history, we still trust him to be our president,” Haggray said.
Haynes believes the president-elect possesses the potential to win the allegiance of all Americans. Obama’s success as a campaigner took America far down the road toward racial justice, but his success in office can advance the cause even further, he observed.
“The success of an Obama administration will go a long way toward erasing the fears of those who still are trapped in the negativity of the past,” he said.
Griffin anticipates Obama facing special challenges as president because of his racial background—not only from whites, but also from some African-Americans “who say he’s not black enough.”
Expectations are high for Obama, and the pressures will be great, he noted. But “he is not the Messiah,” and nobody should expect all the nation’s ills—including its racial divisions—to be healed overnight.
“The kingdom has not come in its fullness,” Griffin said.
–With reporting by Bob Allen