NOW FAITH IS THE SUBSTANCE OF THINGS HOPED FOR, THE EVIDENCE OF THINGS NOT SEEN.
“Work hard, do your best, get an education, and you can be anything you want to be when you grow up—even the president of the United States!” Few statements communicate what it means to be an American parent more than what we believe to be possible for our children. Yet, for parents of children of color, delivering such words of encouragement was often an act of absolute faith accompanied by a guilt-tinged twinge of doubt. For black Americans, lofty aspirations such as leadership of the free world amounted to little more than the wistful ideal of a uniquely American mythology. That faith was perhaps expressed most eloquently by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his unforgettable “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech: “I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.” The determination to change this reality, to remove the shackles from the ambitions of all Americans, is ultimately why King’s life was sacrificed 40 years ago this month.
On April 4, 1968, the very next day after making that speech, King proved to be heartbreakingly prophetic, as he was felled by an assassin’s bullet. He was right; he did not live to see our progress—from the signing of the Civil Rights Act by President Lyndon Johnson a week after his death to Sen. Barack Obama’s historic presidential run today. He never witnessed the progress that African Americans and the nation as a whole would make as a result of his faith and sacrifice. However, as certain as King may have been of the nearness of his own death, he was even more passionately convinced that the rest of his prophetic vision—that justice, fairness, and equality would reign in America for all of its citizens, regardless of race, creed, color, or gender—would also someday come to pass.
Today, “someday” suddenly seems closer than ever. Yes, America continues to be plagued by many of the ills King opposed, including racism, hatred, violence, economic inequality, and a costly, senseless war. However, we now take for granted accomplishments we previously only dared hope to see. Blacks are astronauts, world-class surgeons, Wall Street financiers, state governors, and CEOs of multinational companies. In fact, we are excelling in every field of endeavor. And in an unexpected and momentous leap forward in this country’s fulfillment of its promise, suddenly hope for the future, belief in our limitless potential, and a sense of our collective destiny as Americans have all made a comeback—stirred up by the tidal wave of political engagement inspired by Obama. Indeed, thanks to the historic presidential campaigns of Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton, for the first time in the nation’s history we can tell our children—all of our children—that they can dare anything, even the presidency of the United States, and really believe it in our own hearts.
If we have learned nothing else