Let Freedom Ring
Deaglán de Bréadún
“From every mountainside, let freedom ring. And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
It was impossible in recent days not to be reminded of Martin Luther King’s great civil rights oration at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, on what must have been a sweltering day back in August 1963.
Just as the Obama campaign has inspired millions all over the world, so too did the civil rights movement in its day catch the imagination of a whole generation. The Northern Ireland civil rights movement was inspired by it, although the ending of that story proved tragic in many respects.
The distinguished historian Professor Joe Lee said on Raidió na Gaeltachta that the election of Daniel O’Connell as the first Catholic member of the House of Commons in 1828 had a similar significance to the choice of Barack Obama as President of the United States.
Small wonder that Jesse Jackson was in tears. Dr King himself must be spinning blissfully in his grave, agog with wonderment, as the rest of us are, that part of his great dream has finally come true: a black man has been elected to the most powerful political office in the world. Abraham Lincoln, too, when nobody was watching, must have given a quiet nod of affirmation from his lofty throne in America’s capital city.
Irish people, no less than others, were inspired by the whole thing. In a previous blog I lamented the virtual disappearance of oratory from the political scene in this country. Now we have a US President who is a supremely-skilled public speaker. Substance is more important than rhetoric, of course, but rhetoric has its place and its value. I can’t wait for Obama’s acceptance speech in January, which will no doubt be comparable to JFK’s unforgettable rallying-cry: “The torch has been passed to a new generation”.
Suddenly politics is attractive again and seems like a noble pursuit. Alas, only in America. Here at home we had another report of another junior minister giving precedence to his own family in appointing his personal staff. How tawdry: this kind of thing should be illegal. Where is the Irish Obama to make that demand part of his or her political crusade?
It’s only a matter of time, of course, before the first disillusioned Obama supporter accuses him of “selling out”. When you get down to specifics in foreign policy, for example, there isn’t a whole lot of difference with the current approach of the Bush administration, as academic Rory Miller pointed out in a detailed analysis in yesterday’s Sunday Business Post.
But the tone is different. The problems he confronts are the same ones George W. Bush had to deal with, but he has the opportunity and hopefully also the capacity to rally a people behind him. At a time when America’s stock is low in many quarters around the globe, perhaps Barack Obama can restore its former reputation as a standard-bearer of liberty. Perhaps not: he could get stuck in a Vietnam-type quagmire in Afghanistan; there could be a dangerous stand-off with the Russians; terrorists could strike at the US in its period of transition. We don’t know what the future holds and, for all his grace and charisma, the new president is worryingly short on experience. Yet thanks to his election alone, despite all the prejudice and the doomsayers who spoke of “the Bradley effect” whereby whites paid lip-service to equality but took off the mask in the polling-booth, Barack Obama has changed the course of history and the future dreams of every child born into an ethnic or other minority. Yes he could and yes he did: let freedom ring.
Deaglán de Bréadún, Political Correspondent, The Irish Times