As I watched the scene from Grant Park in Chicago being covered by all the major TV networks, I eagerly awaited the appearance of President-elect Obama. I knew that his words would be iconic. Only a few minutes into his landmark address to the world, tears were coursing down my cheeks. The friend with whom I was watching the coverage turned to me and said: “You seem to be getting emotional.” The question for me that night was, “Why is this historical moment moving me to tears?” In terms of pure policy, I probably find myself more often in agreement with Senator McCain than I do with the President-elect. But Barack Hussein Obama’s ascendance to the Presidency of the United States is about so much more than matters of policy. And it was these larger forces and dynamics that moved me and took me back in time. My roots in Chicago are deep.
It took several months for me to get the mothers to trust me enough to be willing to meet together to form a peer support group. Mrs. Early volunteered to host the first meeting in her modest home in the projects near Roosevelt Road on the near West Side. The meeting was to be held on an evening early in April. As I prepared to leave my dormitory room to head into Chicago for the meeting, my phone rang. It was Mrs. Early:
“Mr. Chase, this is Miss Early. I have been talking to some of the other mothers, and we think it would be best if you did not come tonight.”
On a regular basis, I saw shootings, apartments destroyed by fire, frequent trips to the Emergency Room at Cook County Hospital, funerals for victims of gang violence, drug overdoses, suicide attempts, and street violence. And police brutality. On more than one occasion, I was the victim of intimidation by the overwhelmed Chicago Police Department and the feared Gang Intelligence Unit, who were trying desperately to cope with escalating gang violence and increasingly violent political protests against the Viet Nam War and against racism. These were the days of the Black Panthers and the notorious Chicago Seven. The police probably figured that this white college kid with longish hair must be up to no good in a neighborhood where he “did not belong.” So, it came as no surprise to me in August of that year when what was termed a “police riot” broke out in Grant Park and environs during the chaotic Democratic National Conventional. As police clubbed and bloodied young protestors, the students shouted: “And the whole world is watching.”
As Obama’s earnest and eloquent words soared into our hearts and into our history, the TV cameras panned to the tear-stained face of the Rev. Jesse Jackson. And I was transported back to 1968 when he led Operation Breadbasket. I had Jackson’s home phone number in those days so that I could discuss with him whom we should invite to speak at Wheaton College for our event for racial reconciliation.
May God grant wisdom to the man who spoke in Grant Park and who, with the power of his words and the force of his spirit, dispelled the ghosts of 40 years ago.