Obama's Moment

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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

Naïve of me, leading up to Tuesday, not to have foreseen the emotional moment that would come with a black man winning the presidential election. With millions of Americans, I was zeroed in on the greatness of the man, race aside, on the potential of hope. Early morning Tuesday, huddled under my big golf umbrella with a few fellow voters in a light drizzle outside my neighborhood voting station, an African American woman of some 70 to 75 years welled up with tears as she told us she knew her grandchildren would have this opportunity but she never imagined she would enter a booth and mark her vote for an African American president. And, she added, she wished Dr. King, Jr. could have witnessed this day.

Then, at an election party Tuesday night, I was truly taken by surprise by my own swelling of emotions as Barack Obama took the stage in Grant Park and began his eloquent, authentic, stirring, perfect remarks. In that two-hour span between the call of the electoral vote and his speech in Chicago, I realized the full weight of just how angry and disheartened I have been over these past several years, disillusioned at just how far down the Bush Administration has dragged our once-great country. Obama's victory was an ebullient signal that hope is indeed alive.

I just wasn't focused on race, his race, race in America. But the second he took that stage, it overtook me. The centuries of hatred, of unspeakable hardships, the denial of dignity foisted upon our black brothers and sisters hit me hard. To see Jessie Jackson openly weeping, Oprah Winfrey humbled and tearing herself, it was both abundantly clear and gloriously uplifting to see Barack Obama embody the modern black man who really is free, free at last.

I have become friends with Don Newcombe through the years, the great black pitcher who came into the Major Leagues at the same time as Jackie Robinson. Don told me that he and Jackie and Roy Campanella spent one humiliating summer with the Dodgers whereby they would get off the plane on road trips, be told to stay on the bus while all the white players unloaded their bags at the city's nicest hotel, and then they would be taken to the outskirts of town and dumped at the roach-infested, urine-soaked mattress motel, their rooms above the loud all-night speakeasy whorehouse below. Finally, toward the end of the summer, Don Newcombe had had enough. They were in St. Louis. It was an insufferable 100° day and Don told Roy and Jackie he was going over to the nice hotel and demand a direct answer as to why they were not allowed to stay with their teammates there. The hotel manager sat down with Don and decided to be honest with him. He told him that the management wouldn't mind the black athletes staying at the hotel. It was their fear that they might use the swimming pool that kept them from checking them in. They couldn't have the pool dirtied. Don Newcombe will still cry today when he recalls hearing those words…that people actually thought the pool would be dirty if he or Jackie Robinson or Roy Campanella would dip their bodies in the water. Those words saddened and angered and humiliated Don Newcombe. And he's never forgotten them.

I was only seven when Althea Gibson won Wimbledon but I do remember being struck at how tall and regal and graceful she was. We studied her life in our social studies class that year and learned that tournaments would actually be cancelled if she was entered, that people would yell unconscionably hateful things such as “Beat the nigger”, when she played. I was sixteen when the Texas Western University team won the NCAA basketball national title, an all-black team who were forced to use separate bathrooms and drink from separate water fountains as they traveled the South for games and tournaments.

Barack Obama spoke to and for Don Newcombe and Althea Gibson, the boys of Texas Western, and the woman in the voting line with me on Tuesday. Martin Luther King, Jr's dream has now come true.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.



Diana Nyad