As I watched the 2008 election returns, my thoughts turned to my father, who died two years earlier.
“If only my dad could be here to see this,” I told my husband as President-elect Barack Obama eloquently accepted his new job. I know it was what my family members were thinking about, too.
You see, when I was young, most fathers took their kids fishing or camping; mine took me to anti-war marches, job actions, picket lines and grape boycotts. First a bricklayer, then a union organizer, my father was passionate about his politics, which leaned left. He worked hard on behalf of “jobs and justice” his entire life.
In August of 1963, my dad rode a bus to join people from across the country for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, an event most remembered for its peacefulness and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s monumentous “I Have a Dream” speech. My dad joined with labor and religious leaders and civil rights organizers to march down the Washington Mall from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial in an event he described as “beautiful.”
“There was music and families with little kids and grandparents, and all kinds of people there,” he told me years later when I pressed him about what it was like to be part of history. “It was like a big picnic. Everyone was friendly and happy. It was just beautiful.”
That’s all he had to say.
In reading about the event, I know that my dad heard songs from Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, though he never told me what it was like to see them perform politically. He heard lots of speeches, too, before the event climaxed with King stirring the world in the speech credited with putting into motion the energy that created the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
At home, I — a little white girl, born in Detroit but growing up in one of its first-ring suburbs — watched television news footage of the event in black-and-white. I didn’t understand everything about the march, but my heart swelled with pride that my dad was part of something so huge, so peaceful and so good.
It was inevitable that on Election Day 2008, as I flipped through news channels, grainy footage from that day was often included for perspective.
I thought, “Barack Obama was probably 2 years old when all this happened.”
Then I remembered how young I was, and how proud I was of my father’s part in the march, tiny in the context of the event itself, but huge in my childhood eyes. My dad — MY DAD — was part of history.
I engaged my then 9-year-old son, Will, in this past presidential election by stressing the history that would be made, no matter the winner.
“We’ll either have the first black president or the first woman vice president ever,” I told him. “This is amazing. This is history.”
So on election evening, when the film of the civil-rights march flashed on the screen, I told Will about how his grandfather was there.
“It’s history,” I told him, explaining that in my lifetime, America has gone from the shame of segregation to a black man poised to ascend to the highest position in the land.
That his beloved Poppy was part of something so big seemed to resonate with him.
“What was the march like?” Will asked.
“Poppy said it was beautiful,” I told him. “It’s a big part of history, and that’s why it’s so important tonight.”
Will had been asleep for hours when the big speeches closed out the historic election. I finally went upstairs to bed, feeling so very good.
I first turned off the light in the hallway that Will swears he can’t sleep without. Then I went into his room like I do every night, stepping gently to avoid stray Legos on the floor. I clicked off the lava lamp on his dresser and then the light in his closet. I so love that when that final light goes out, the hundreds of stars and planets Will’s dad and I put on the ceiling of his room before he was born begin to glow; they cast such a lovely light.
Wrapped in a quilt beneath the glowing stars, on a bed strewn with stuffed animals and books, my son slept peacefully. I kissed him, as I always do, and started to leave; then I turned back and gently shook his shoulder to rouse him.
“Barack Obama won,” I whispered as his eyes opened a bit.
“Well, that’s history,” he murmured before falling back to sleep.
I looked up at the glowing galaxy over our heads, knowing that somewhere out there my dad was thinking the same thing. I hoped that he knew, too, how proud his kid and grandkid were of the small part he played in it all.