The Atlantic: Jeffrey Goldberg: On Electing an African-American President

The Atlantic: Jeffrey Goldberg

On Electing an African-American President

My hometown, Malverne, on the South Shore of New York’s Long Island, is all white and mainly Catholic, but it shares a school district with a mostly African-American neighborhood called Lakeview. The house in which I lived (after we made the exodus from Brooklyn, that is) was near the dividing line – the appropriately-named Ocean Avenue. The public schools, when I was a child, were about half-white and half-black, but blacks were often poorly represented on the school board and in the school administration.  There was a great deal of fear in certain white quarters of black empowerment; at one point, black parents, and their white supporters, notably, my parents, had to sue in order to get buses to take black students across Ocean Avenue to the district’s two elementary schools, both of which were located deep in the white zone. Everything, it seemed, was a fight.

These are my memories of those tumultuous days: Friendship among students across the color line, and bitterness and suspicion among the adults. For all the obvious reasons, then, today seems to me a new story.  Once, the fight was to elect African-Americans to serve on a local school board; now, the country seems ready to choose an African-American to be president. This upsurge of memories prompted me to call a dear friend of my mother’s, a woman named Rener Reed, who was and is, a stalwart in the civil rights struggle in our school district, and well beyond.

Mrs. Reed, who was born in Mississippi, is a leader of the NAACP (I think it was she who signed me up for a lifetime membership), a large-hearted person and generally a tough cookie.  I asked her how she felt about today, against the backdrop of her long struggles. She laughed and said, “Well, you know, the school board is back to one black member.” But then she reported that she has seen Obama signs in the white parts of town.  “We’re living in a time when white people can look past color,” she said, almost as if she were describing a dawning messianic age. “I always had faith that this could happen.”  She said she could not wait to vote. “I’m going early,” she said. “My vote is going to count.”

It will. That’s a small miracle for a black woman born in Mississippi. The whole day, in fact, is an astonishment. It’s worth remembering that.

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