Monday, November 10, 2008

Men and women of my age have lived through extraordinary events that were not predicted - from the collapse of the Soviet Union to the ending of apartheid in South Africa, events which gave a lift to the spirit and vent to an expression of undisguised national and international joy. The election of the first black president of the United States must surely be placed in the same category. Not that events in Russia are not still worrying and turmoil in South Africa still possible nor that a new president will necessarily be able to answer all America’s problems aggravated as they are by the world economic turmoil. The burden on his shoulders will be immense.

It will sadden me but it won’t upset me if he fails to fulfil the high expectations raised. I would only be upset if he strayed too far from his avowed intent to be a president for all Americans and if African Americans were to come to feel he has let them down. The very fact that he, against many odds and predictions, has triumphed is a moment for men and women of all races to savour. This page of history cannot be turned back

I am not a political person. I have never joined a political party nor taken sides on a party political issue. The first time I have ever worn a political button was this week. Whether a person is a Republican or a Democrat can’t get me worked up. But what this election signifies is far more than a political issue, it is even more important than a departure from policies which have upset decent people around the world. It won’t at a stroke solve racial issues within the United States or get rid of resentments in black people that have smouldered over the centuries. But in this case the image of a black man in The White House is a message of supreme importance.

I was thinking as I considered this amazing development and saw the lines at the polls and the enthusiasm, rather resembling the famous South African elections that brought Mandela to power, of the words of an Englishman who would have rejoiced. He was born a hundred years ago next month (Dec 20).

Peter Howard, to whom I owe much of my faith and my writing, was a white English journalist who, on February 23, 1964 made a memorable speech at Atlanta’s Wheat Street Baptist Church, one of America’s oldest African-American churches. He said, ‘The different races in America are her strength and glory. They are no handicap. They are an asset that no other country possesses.’ His speech was entitled ‘What colour is God’s skin?’

Howard was to me the living example of the power of God to transform even the most unlikely person. He was an inspiration to thousands of young people, particularly in the United States. In his day he was one of the highest paid columnists in Britain, a world bobsled champion and a best-selling author. At his death only a year after his Atlanta speech, 17 heads of state and prime ministers sent condolences and House Speaker John McCormack compared him to the Marquis de Lafayette in services rendered to America.

A novelist who created a character like Howard would find readers incredulous. Born with a foot and knee joined – he wore leg irons as a boy and was forbidden contact sports – Howard went on to become the youngest captain of England’s rugby team. A writer who mocked religion (he once wrote that he ‘found it repulsive to see anyone reading a Bible in a railway carriage’), Howard penned 30 books and plays designed to encourage faith. He succeeded Frank Buchman as the leader of the movement now known as Initiatives of Change.

Racial equality was high on his list of priorities and a recognition where those like him who were white had let down their faith. In his Atlanta address he said, ‘God made men in different colours. A white man’s world, in the sense that a man because of the colour of his skin is closer to God than his neighbour, affronts the will of the Almighty and the understanding and conscience of humanity. So does a black man’s world. So does a world of yellow or red domination. We need a world where all men walk the earth with the dignity of brotherhood that should be normal to all who accept the fatherhood of God.’

‘Today the long-awaited tide of history flows toward the non-white races,’ he told his African-American audience. ‘Those tides will lift burdens of the centuries and wipe out blood stains in the sands of time. Be sure that tide elevates all humanity.’

You could not expect every black person, he said, any more than you could expect every white man, to be a genius of ability, a paragon of virtue, a miracle of grace. But he hoped, prayed and expected that the black people of the United States of America would have the wisdom, understanding and human greatness to avoid mistakes that men like himself had made before them.

‘The black man’s chance is surely coming. What will he do with it? I do not say, “Be patient”. I say, “Be passionate for an answer big enough to include everybody, powerful enough to change everybody, fundamental enough to satisfy the longings for bread, work and the hope of a new world that lies kin the heart of the teeming millions of the earth.”’

Howard believed strongly in the possibility of change, change personally and nationally. He spoke of true love ‘where black loves white, white loves black, all Americans love America, and America loves the modern world enough to live so that black, white and the whole of this torn and suffering earth become as they are meant to be in the mind of the Almighty.’

He held out a vision to his black audience, ‘My faith is in modern America. I believe that Americans will arise and shine forth with a character that convicts, captivates and changes nation after nation. I believe that those who have suffered most will show the greatest passion and compassion for suffering humanity. I believe that those who have been victims of worst discrimination will be the first to heal the hates and fears of others because they themselves are free from fear and hate. I am convinced that men and women who for generations have drunk the water of tears and eaten the bread of bitterness will give living water and the bread of life to millions, trembling, longing, hoping, waiting, praying, for the new type of man and the new type of society that will lead the world into lasting justice, liberty and peace. Those who have passed through the fires of persecution can hold forth one hand to persecutors and persecuted alike and with the other uplift a flame of freedom to illuminate the earth.’

May President-elect Obama carry that torch with distinction.