A defining moment

There are moments over the last four or more decades that remain indelible. Moments that stopped time, and were, literally, breathtaking. Often such times are tragic. Who can forget the moment bulletins went out from Dallas that President Kennedy had been shot and killed? Or the long-felt grief at the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. The shocking and heartbreaking instant when a passenger plane, then another, hit the Twin Towers.

And there are those moments which defy description and all expectation, and occur on the field of play or the public arena when a singular individual transcends all human ability and steps into the realm of the impossible, requiring us to suspend our disbelief. We can only stand and watch and remember to breathe.

One such moment occurred last Tuesday evening when Barack Obama — tempered by more than 20 months of debates, of rallies, interviews and press conferences, of speeches delivered before stadium crowds asking Americans to believe that we can find the best that is within us and begin anew — stood before more than 250,000 people in Grant Park in Chicago and said, "If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer."

As polls closed on the east coast, the first results began to emerge. Red states that had long ago been slated for John McCain fell into place. The same was true for Obama. But then Ohio, traditionally red, flipped to blue and became the precursor of what would be a historical election night. It would be one of those moments. At 11 p.m. eastern time the networks declared Obama the 44th President of the United States. For many, it was a dream long deferred.

But then think of what has gone before. It has been 146 years since the Emancipation Proclamation freed nearly four million slaves; 112 years since the Supreme Court upheld Plessy v. Ferguson, a decision which made separate but equal the law of the land; 54 years since Brown v. the Board of Education dismantled segregation in our schools; 44 years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act, outlawing segregation in all public places, thereby dismantling the insidious Jim Crow policy of separate and unequal; and 43 years since the Voting Rights Act was passed, eliminating all attempts to disenfranchise a people.

And yet, on that early November day, with quiet determination, no matter the lines or the wait, America voted — black and white, young and old, Latino and native American, Asian and Middle Eastern, gay and straight, religious and non-religious — and transcended a legacy of slavery to which we are, for all time, bound but by which we are no longer defined.

As the camera panned across those gathered in Grant Park, and images from around the nation and around the world filled the screen, startling pictures of cheering people, many with faces damp from tears, it was evident that something unprecedented had occurred. The torch had been passed to a new generation. One born in the last decades of the 20th century, moved by the unyielding horrors of the wars in the Middle East, impacted by the pain and suffering of countless people in such remote places as Rwanda, Congo and Darfur. A generation fully cognizant of a planet in peril and deeply aware of all that remains to be done and that time is of the essence.

To use the words of John Kennedy — delivered at his inauguration — this is a generation that is "proud of its ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed and to which we are committed today, at home and around the world."

And so Obama stood, looking out at the thousands of people, now grown suddenly quiet, and said, "The road ahead will be long, our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term — but America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you, we as a people will get there."

And as he spoke those words, one person in the crowd held up a sign that said, "We have overcome."

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