When the historic legislative milestone of the Voting Rights Act finally passed in 1965, I was still a young teenager. Until then, black people in America didn't have the right to vote. And until the Civil Rights Act passed the previous year in 1964, black Americans had to drink from separate drinking fountains, eat at separate lunch counters, ride at the back of buses, and watch movies only from the balconies of theaters. Then there was all the violence. I remember a civil rights worker from my hometown of Detroit, named Viola Liuzzo, who traveled to the South in order to help black people win the right to vote for the first time. She was murdered for doing so.
I was still in the U.K. on a book tour Tuesday night, just having finished speaking to a forum at the British Parliament with ministers from all three parties about the relationship between faith and politics. Then I stayed up until 4 a.m. to watch Barack Obama claim the nomination of the Democratic Party for president of the United States. It was my birthday the next day, and I recalled those days when the relationship between faith and politics for many black and a few white Christians was that if you stood up for civil rights -- especially the right to vote for black Americans -- it could get you killed. So I was not only blurry-eyed but also more than a little teary-eyed as I watched a young black man announce that he was ready to run for president of the United States, and for most of America to assume that he had a chance to win.
Race was the issue that led to my own confrontation with the church that raised me. It was my "converting issue," though the conversion led me out of the white church of my childhood, not into the church. A church elder bluntly told me one night that "Christianity has nothing to do with racism. That's political and our faith is personal." I was only about 15, but it was the night I think I left, in my head and my heart. And a couple years later, I was gone all together.
The little evangelical church that my parents had started and that was my second home was simply wrong about race -- completely wrong. Race was the issue that fundamentally shaped my early social conscience. What I saw in Detroit and in the country I had grown up to love seemed fundamentally wrong. I learned there were two Detroits and two Americas, one white and one black. And it seemed contrary to the religion my family had taught me to treat people in a fundamentally different way because of the color of their skin. But the church didn't agree and we parted company for most of my student years, with me only coming back to faith after a fresh encounter with the radical gospel of the New Testament. I came back with the realization that God is indeed personal, but never private, and exploring what that means has shaped the rest of my life.
So watching Obama, a black man, win the nomination of a major party for the presidency brought back a virtual flood of memories and feelings. That Barack is a friend of 10 years made it all the more personal. This morning I heard several interviews on NPR with black Americans about their response to Obama's nomination. One older woman said, "A black man running for president, did you hear what just I said? A black man running for president of the United States ...." She just kept repeating the words, and succinctly captured my own personal feelings.
Yes, it is truly historic, and the U.K. newspaper headlines captured that sentiment as did papers around the world. Nothing could change the image of America around the world more than this. But it is more than historic; it is very personal for many of my generation. A new generation just sees this as natural -- he's an inspirational leader who happens to be black, which matters little to them. But for my generation -- I'm dating myself now -- this is a transformational moment, one we didn't think would come in our lifetimes. Race was the issue that changed us, shaped us, determined our path, and even defined the meaning of our faith. Now a black man is running for president of the United States. Amazing grace.