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Celebrating our diversity

Since President-Elect Barack Obama's victory, I've been thinking about what an amazing moment it is when we, as a nation, celebrate our wonderful diversity. The United States of America is a unique melting pot of immigrants from all over the world. Yet even in 2008, too many people fear deviation from the status quo.

In the Obama victory celebrations Tuesday night, across the country, the huge crowds were of every age and hue, representing America at its best. If you looked at the McCain campaign gathering in Arizona, it was hard to spot a non-white face. The Republican party needs to do some soul-searching, as it has become nearly unrecognisable. By pandering to a narrow, right-wing base of social conservatives, the party has lost its bearings.

Growing up during desegregation

I grew up in a state where for 28 years Governor Orval Faubus (1910-1994) fueled the twin flames of racism and segregation. I grew up hearing stories about Faubus's 1957 refusal to desegregate Little Rock public schools. The governor defied a unanimous US Supreme Court decision by ordering the Arkansas National Guard to stop African-American students (back then they were called blacks and still are, in much of the South) students from attending Central High School. Faubus's drastic actions led President Dwight Eisenhower to federalize the state's National Guard. Eisenhower ordered the guard to return to their armories, then sent members of the 101st Airborne Division to protect black students and enforce the court order. In retaliation, Faubus shut down Little Rock high schools for the 1958-1959 school year, prompting a flurry of lawsuits.

Harry Ashmore of the (now-defunct) Arkansas Gazette won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing about the crisis. Ashmore said Faubus used the Guard to block blacks from Central High School because he was frustrated by the success of his political opponents, who were using segregationist rhetoric to incite white voters.

In June 1963, two black students tried to enroll at the University of Alabama. Governor George Wallace tried to block the court-ordered desegregation. Like Eisenhower before him, President John F. Kennedy federalized the state’s National Guard, forcing Wallace's compliance. Kennedy then went on television to address the nation:

" Difficulties over segregation and discrimination exist in every city, in every State of the Union, producing in many cities a rising tide of discontent that threatens the public safety...In a time of domestic crisis, men of good will and generosity should be able to unite regardless of party or politics...This is not even a legal or legislative issue alone. It is better to settle these matters in the courts than on the streets and new laws are needed at every level, but law alone cannot make men see right. We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution."

Sad

Pensive, Antoni Gaudi's Sagrada de Familia, Barcelona, Spain.

In 1992, in the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis - on the site of the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King was shot - I saw exhibits about Faubus and the "Lost Year" in Little Rock. I also heard the recording of Kennedy's confrontational phone conversation with George Wallace. Later in life, both Wallace and Faubus began to soften their segregationist stance. In 1962, Faubus broke with the White Citizens' Councils and other extremist groups. He even endorsed Jesse Jackson in the 1984 Democratic presidential primaries. But Faubus - once one of the ten most admired men in America - could not shake his reputation as a racist.

Fulbright, McClellan, Mills and Clinton

Ironically, during the same period Arkansas had three of the most brilliant and respected Democratic leaders serving in Washington. Senator J. William Fulbright (1905-1995) was the longtime chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was the only senator to vote against an appropriation for the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in 1954, chaired by the Communist-fearing Senator Joseph McCarthy. Fulbright began his distinguished career in public office as a socially-conservative populist and didn't embrace civil rights legislation until 1964.

John L. McClellan (1896-1977) was the powerful chair of the Senate Appropriations committee. Representative Wilbur D. Mills (1909-1992) served as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. And of course, former President Bill Clinton was another Arkansas politician who made a difference. I am proud to say that I met all four of these men and was influenced by their collective passion for righting wrongs.

Indignities suffered

As a child, I witnessed blacks suffering terrible indignities; having separate waiting rooms at doctor's offices and hotels and working hard at menial jobs, the women mostly as maids or cooks or taking in ironing; the men as laborers and picking crops from the fields. Out of these hardships, a musical genre known as the blues was born. So many men and women suffered indignity after indignity, yet bore them all quietly, with dignity. Without cars, in small towns without public transportation, many African-Americans were forced to walk long distances to and from their modest homes on the edge of town.

When I was 11 or 12, we moved from a house in the country to a house in town. A former pecan orchard had been converted into residential property for about nine middle-class homes, all built at different times. Just a few meters down the same street - and down a hill - the road was paved, but the houses were little more than wooden shacks in various stages of disrepair.

One woman who lived in such a house was Emma. She must have been in her '70s and not in the best of health. Yet she walked several blocks nearly every day to the home of an elderly white man, where she cleaned his house and prepared his meals. My dad - who passed the man's house on his way to work - asked Emma to ride with him. A proud woman, she didn't want to take charity. So she returned my dad's kindness by occasionally baking delicious homemade rolls and chicken pot pies for our family. We didn't know much of Emma's story; she guarded her privacy. Sometimes she was sick and probably didn't have the money to see a doctor. We didn't know Emma more than a couple of years, before she died. But she made a lasting impression.

And if Emma were white and of a certain age, we never would have called her by her first name. She would have been "Mrs. So-and-So." The familiar use of first names stems from pre-Civil War days, when blacks were called sometimes not even by their names, but by their gender, "Boy" or "Girl." Even old men were sometimes referred to as "Boy" by their white slavemasters.

Integration of schools

When public schools were ordered to integrate, a group of parents banded together to incorporate a small private school, so that their children didn't have to rub shoulders with black children. The wife of a prominent Methodist physician sent her daughter - one of my best friends - to a private Catholic school in Little Rock. Our next-door neighbors moved to a small town in the Northern part of the state that had few black residents.

It wasn't the children who had a problem with blacks; we got along fine. It was the adults. Many Southerners had been raised by bigots and simply couldn't imagine viewing the world in any way, other than in black and white. They were fearful of interaction, other than in the employer/employee mode.

We all heard horror stories about the Ku Klux Klan and their dark and nefarious deeds. We read newspaper coverage of their murder trials. Civil rights lawyer and activist Morris Dees was - and still is - my hero. He helped implement the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Dees and lawyer Joe Levin later founded the Southern Poverty Law Center,to teach tolerance, fight for racial equality and help monitor hate groups.

In college, I won an Associated Press Collegiate Journalism award for my story about community racism against a non-denominational campus choir. Later, as a reporter I covered federal court trials of members of white supremacist groups including "The Covenant, The Sword and the Arm of the Lord" and "The Order," the neo-Nazi group that robbed a bank in Ukiah, California to help finance the murder of Denver radio talk show host Alan Berg.

"Consider a person's actions, not the color of their skin."

Martin Luther King made that plea. All these years later, it's gratifying that the majority of Americans looked past race and considered character when electing Barack Obama as president. Gen. Colin Powell was right when he said we've elected a good man, who just happens to be black.

But the majority of Southern states seem locked in a conservative mindset. As a nation, we still have a long road of tolerance and understanding to travel.

Ralph Nader is a perfect example. If Fox "News" - FOX! - chides him for an outrageous statement, it must be bad. First in a radio interview, then in a television interview, Nader said he wondered if Barack Obama would be "Uncle Tom for the giant corporations." "Uncle Tom" is a reference to "Uncle Tom's Cabin," the anti-slavery novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe. "Uncle Tom" has been used as a derogative term for black Americans accused of selling out to whites.

Nader - the son of a Lebanese immigrant - once was a respected consumer advocate, who founded the Public Interest Research Group. Every four years he "rears his head," - as Sarah Palin would say - and runs for president. It's all about his ego. If Nader actually cared about good government, he would do something constructive in between his disruptive presidential campaigns.

As Americans, we need to remember that the ideals and beliefs that unite us are stronger than the fears that divide us.

Update: Gen. Wesley Clark (also from Arkansas) reports about Election night in Chicago: "As I walked onto the field in Grant Park -- there were thousands of us around the podium -- a couple of reporters asked me what I thought of this. "Transformational," I said, "but, ask Ernest Green, right here, who was one of the original young people at Central High who broke segregation in the South. Ask him!"

"It was a humbling and deeply moving experience to be there with Ernest and with former Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, Amb. Sam Brown and his wife and so many others who have shared our passion to set this country on the right course. And to see the faces of all around us, representing all the diversity that Barack cited in his remarks..."