JUNE 16 marks an important, if not monumental, anniversary in the racial politics of the United States.
On this day 150 years ago, in 1858, Abraham Lincoln accepted the senatorial nomination of the Illinois Republican Party with a rousing speech in Springfield.
Although he ultimately lost to his bitter rival, Stephen The Little Giant Douglas, Lincoln solidified his position as one of the nation s greatest orators and a proud proponent of slavery s abolition.
Lincoln s speech was more than an acceptance of his party s support, and it was certainly more than an excoriation of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. It was a vocal declaration against the very politically divisive question of slavery.
Perhaps more important for its rhetorical significance, the speech brought to the fore issues that many, while passionately motivated to support one side or the other, did not wish to discuss. Slavery was not dinner-table conversation, much as today s hot button questions regarding the war in Iraq, abortion, and gun control often are avoided rather than brought out into the open in everyday interaction.
This speech, which came to be known as the House Divided speech, would go on to be oft-quoted and frequently analyzed. Lincoln offered: A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved I do not expect the house to fall but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.
Prophetic, in a sense, because although the house would bend and sway in the tumult of Reconstruction and the continued battle for racial equality, it would not fall.
We face an important time in our history when the junior senator from Illinois, Mr. Lincoln s home state, Barack Obama makes monumental strides toward a new and exciting frontier of racial equality. These are times not likely imagined by generations come and gone. These are times that call into question opinions about race and ethnicity conversations most in the United States would rather not have.
Are we still a house divided? Will this nation crumble under the strain of permanent change?
These are questions with which academics, politicos, and everyday citizens must grapple. No one ever said politics was easy, after all. The great strides toward equality seen in Supreme Court cases such as Brown vs. Board of Education (1954), Loving vs. Virginia (1967), Batson vs. Kentucky (1986), and legislative and executive actions such as the Civil Rights Act (1964), the Voting Rights Act (1965), and Executive Order 11246 (Equal Employment Opportunity, 1965) now stand as but small parts of a burning question: Are we a house divided?
We are still light years behind where we ought to be when it comes to racial and ethnic harmony. We are not equal but we are moving toward that goal. Yet, it seems that no matter where one lives, small town or big city, the nation sits precariously on the teeter-totter of racial strife. Almost weekly, we are forced to call into question the progress made toward equality. Stories of discrimination abound in the assigning of contracts, the hiring and firing of employees, and the administration of the country s laws.
Much has been made about the racism still seen throughout the country, as well as the racism lurking at the surface of the two major political parties. Senator Obama s presidential campaign is a clear indication that we ve made progress, and as it continues it will test the progress we ve made as a society. That is not to say that if Mr. Obama loses in November, the country is still clearly racially divided, but that the 2008 presidential election will call on every individual to examine their beliefs about race and equality. Likewise, that is not to say that Senator Obama has declared his presidential campaign a referendum on race in the United States. He has not and has expressed very much a unifying message of hope and progress regardless of the racial overtones surrounding the campaign. But that does not undercut the racial tones of the political discussion to date or the importance of this presidential race to the progress toward equality.
The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., declared in his I Have a Dream speech that the promissory note of the bank of justice has been returned marked insufficient funds. Will we as a nation see the same result in the presidential election of 2008?
The bank of justice has tried valiantly to fill its coffers with sufficient funds to ensure the promises of equality and freedom. Moreover, we have some signs of solid returns on our investment. Nevertheless, racial inequality still exists despite many of us that would dismiss such statements as fear mongering or racial divisive in and of themselves.
The politics of race pervades this country and, as we approach a new presidential election, we must harken back to history and ask what progress we ve made.
Abraham Lincoln may have lost his bid for the United States Senate, but he asked a question as timely then as it is now. Lincoln went on to conclude, We shall not fail if we stand firm, we shall not fail. Wise counsels may accelerate, or mistakes delay it, but, sooner or later, the victory is sure to come. The presidential run of Senator Obama tells us one thing: No matter how the 2008 election concludes victory is sure to come.
Nick J. Sciullo lives and works in Alexandria, Va. He writes on race, class, and gender issues.
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