I was 10 years old when Japan surrendered, ending World War II. We were living in Detroit at the time (the "inner city" although we never thought of it that way) and my parents, in an uncharacteristically spontaneous moment, took me downtown to see the city celebrate "V-J Day."
I shall be forever grateful. It was one of the special moments of my life, one that lives vividly in memory even now, more than 60 years later.
There must have been a million or more people downtown, marching, laughing, singing, waving flags, kissing and hugging each other. I'd not seen such mass happiness before and haven't since.
But I wish I'd been in Grant Park in Chicago two weeks ago. It must have been something like that night in Detroit.
The election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States is a monumental event in the history of our nation. It ranks with the fall of the Berlin Wall.
And that's not because he's going to solve all of our problems (he's not). It's not even because he's going to do all the things he said he was going to do (he's not). In the end, he may not even be judged a successful president; he'll need to be lucky.
But by the very act of being elected, he ratifies a change in the attitudes that inform this nation. He leaps the contradictions of the Constitution and gives flesh to the promise of the Declaration of Independence.
Alone among our immigrant groups, black people first arrived here not by choice but by force. They were taken as prisoners from their homes in Africa and transported here in the fetid bowels of slave ships to be bought and sold like farm animals.
It took 175 years before our Constitution granted them even three-fifths of human status as we formed our nation "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." That was an upgrade for them. Three-fifths equal.
It was another 75 years before the nation abolished slavery and it took a horrendous Civil War to get it done. Nearly a century of racial segregation followed and progress for African-Americans came in drips and dribbles.
American presidents became heroes to African-Americans for the merest symbolic gestures of support---Teddy Roosevelt inviting Booker T. Washington to the White House, Franklin Roosevelt stepping in to offer Marian Anderson a chance to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after she'd been denied Constitution Hall by the DAR, John Kennedy making a call to Martin Luther King, Jr. in his jail cell.
President Harry S Truman was celebrated as a civil rights champion when he desegregated the Armed forces. This at a time when a black man couldn't even be a major league baseball player or, in many southern states, drink at the same water fountain as a white person. This election was no symbolic gesture. It represents a giant leap forward.
If you are not proud to be an American today, you should check your pulse. You may be dead. Nov. 4th was a great day in the history of this nation.
Failed presidencies are a modern American tradition. But this is not the time for dark thoughts. This is a time to stand in the Grant Park of our minds and exult in the ability of this great nation to lay fresh claim to the ideals on which it was founded.
Don Kaul is a two-time Pulitzer Prize-losing Washington correspondent who, by his own account, is right more than he's wrong.