Barack Obama’s nod to Sam Cooke and the civil rights era

Barack Obama’s victory last night in the U.S. presidential election brought tears to my eyes not only because of the incredible historic nature of his mere candidacy, and the poignancy of his life story, and the righteousness of overcoming the odds and connecting with the majority of Americans to win the White House. The emotions welled up because of his ability to engage me throughout the campaign — even though I was early on a supporter of Hillary Clinton — at a personal level.

It wasn’t just the emails and text messages and the idealistic ubiquitousness of his campaign’s eager, enthusiastic volunteers and supporters. The enthusiasm certainly was catching, however. It was simply the man, and his seeming thoughtfulness and determination. And his determined disregard for the most historic part of his grand run: his color.

He didn’t really disregard it. He simply refused to make it the focus of his identity. The only time he addressed it head-on was with his speech during the primaries about the nature of race in America.

But last night, during his victory speech in downtown Chicago’s Grant Park, he acknowledged that he understands the enormity of his accomplishment very well. He mentioned it right away, in a reference to his place in the racial narrative: “It’s the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.

“Its been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.”

That last line struck a familiar note with me. It was a reference to a 1964 Sam Cooke song, one of the former gospel-singer-turned-pop-star’s lesser hits.

A Change Is Gonna Come” was Cooke’s own acknowledgement of his place in the race narrative, but it was one of his last singles, released after he was killed under mysterious circumstances. (A Los Angeles motel manager claimed she shot him in self-defense.)

Cooke had written “Change,” his only protest song as a follow-up to Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Dylan returned the favor after Cooke’s death with “The Times They Are a-Changin’.”

The slow, measured ballad is not one of Cooke’s well-known, bright, sugary love songs like “You Send Me” or “Cupid,” where he mixed gospel style with pop sentiments. The powerful chorus of the song, which went on to become a familiar refrain to those in the civil rights movement, is, “It’s been a long, a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come.”

Like Obama said last night, that change has come to America, at last.

Obama is nothing if not deliberate. I believe he’s incredibly smart, intellectually curious and well-read, without being “elitist” in his cultural references, and his speech writer does a great job giving him a consistent voice that feels real, and transparent.

Many of the 90,000 people at Grant Park last night, and most of the millions more who watched his speech on TV screens or computers or mobile phones around the world, probably didn’t catch the nod to Sam Cooke and the decades of the civil rights struggle.

Media pundits will say Obama is a post-racial President, but he’s no fool. He understands how much race still plays a part in our country’s sometimes dysfunctional dynamic.

I’ll be fascinated to watch this man take the reins of our country and attempt to bridge that racial divide, as well as the political, cultural and generational divides. I hope, and I believe, that change has truly come to the United States of America.

Here are the lyrics to Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” followed by video and text of Obama’s victory speech:

Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” written in 1963, after seeing civil rights protesters in the South, and hearing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”:

I was born by the river in a little tent
And just like the river, I’ve been running ever since
It’s been a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come

It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die
I don’t know what’s up there beyond the sky
It’s been a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come

I go to the movie, and I go downtown
Somebody keep telling me “Don’t hang around”
It’s been a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come

Then I go to my brother and I say, “Brother, help me please”
But he winds up knocking me back down on my knees

There’ve been times that I’ve thought I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come

Barack Obama’s victory speech at Chicago’s Grant Park, November 4, 1963:

If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.

Its the answer told by lines that stretched around schools and churches in numbers this nation has never seen; by people who waited three hours and four hours, many for the very first time in their lives, because they believed that this time must be different; that their voice could be that difference.

Its the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled – Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been a collection of Red States and Blue States: we are, and always will be, the United States of America.

Its the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.

Its been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.

I just received a very gracious call from Senator McCain. He fought long and hard in this campaign, and hes fought even longer and harder for the country he loves. He has endured sacrifices for America that most of us cannot begin to imagine, and we are better off for the service rendered by this brave and selfless leader. I congratulate him and Governor Palin for all they have achieved, and I look forward to working with them to renew this nations promise in the months ahead.

I want to thank my partner in this journey, a man who campaigned from his heart and spoke for the men and women he grew up with on the streets of Scranton and rode with on that train home to Delaware, the Vice President-elect of the United States, Joe Biden.

I would not be standing here tonight without the unyielding support of my best friend for the last sixteen years, the rock of our family and the love of my life, our nations next First Lady, Michelle Obama. Sasha and Malia, I love you both so much, and you have earned the new puppy thats coming with us to the White House. And while shes no longer with us, I know my grandmother is watching, along with the family that made me who I am. I miss them tonight, and know that my debt to them is beyond measure.

To my campaign manager David Plouffe, my chief strategist David Axelrod, and the best campaign team ever assembled in the history of politics – you made this happen, and I am forever grateful for what youve sacrificed to get it done.

But above all, I will never forget who this victory truly belongs to – it belongs to you.

I was never the likeliest candidate for this office. We didnt start with much money or many endorsements. Our campaign was not hatched in the halls of Washington – it began in the backyards of Des Moines and the living rooms of Concord and the front porches of Charleston.

It was built by working men and women who dug into what little savings they had to give five dollars and ten dollars and twenty dollars to this cause. It grew strength from the young people who rejected the myth of their generations apathy; who left their homes and their families for jobs that offered little pay and less sleep; from the not-so-young people who braved the bitter cold and scorching heat to knock on the doors of perfect strangers; from the millions of Americans who volunteered, and organized, and proved that more than two centuries later, a government of the people, by the people and for the people has not perished from this Earth. This is your victory.

I know you didnt do this just to win an election and I know you didnt do it for me. You did it because you understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead. For even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime – two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century. Even as we stand here tonight, we know there are brave Americans waking up in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan to risk their lives for us. There are mothers and fathers who will lie awake after their children fall asleep and wonder how theyll make the mortgage, or pay their doctors bills, or save enough for college. There is new energy to harness and new jobs to be created; new schools to build and threats to meet and alliances to repair.

The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America – I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you – we as a people will get there.

There will be setbacks and false starts. There are many who wont agree with every decision or policy I make as President, and we know that government cant solve every problem. But I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face. I will listen to you, especially when we disagree. And above all, I will ask you join in the work of remaking this nation the only way its been done in America for two-hundred and twenty-one years – block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.

What began twenty-one months ago in the depths of winter must not end on this autumn night. This victory alone is not the change we seek – it is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were. It cannot happen without you.

So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism; of service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other. Let us remember that if this financial crisis taught us anything, its that we cannot have a thriving Wall Street while Main Street suffers – in this country, we rise or fall as one nation; as one people.

Let us resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long. Let us remember that it was a man from this state who first carried the banner of the Republican Party to the White House – a party founded on the values of self-reliance, individual liberty, and national unity. Those are values we all share, and while the Democratic Party has won a great victory tonight, we do so with a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress. As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, We are not enemies, but friends…though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn – I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your President too.

And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world – our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand. To those who would tear this world down – we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security – we support you. And to all those who have wondered if Americas beacon still burns as bright – tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope.

For that is the true genius of America – that America can change. Our union can be perfected. And what we have already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

This election had many firsts and many stories that will be told for generations. But one thats on my mind tonight is about a woman who cast her ballot in Atlanta. Shes a lot like the millions of others who stood in line to make their voice heard in this election except for one thing – Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old.

She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldnt vote for two reasons – because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.

And tonight, I think about all that shes seen throughout her century in America – the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told that we cant, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes we can.

At a time when womens voices were silenced and their hopes dismissed, she lived to see them stand up and speak out and reach for the ballot. Yes we can.

When there was despair in the dust bowl and depression across the land, she saw a nation conquer fear itself with a New Deal, new jobs and a new sense of common purpose. Yes we can.

When the bombs fell on our harbor and tyranny threatened the world, she was there to witness a generation rise to greatness and a democracy was saved. Yes we can.

She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that We Shall Overcome. Yes we can.

A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change. Yes we can.

America, we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do. So tonight, let us ask ourselves – if our children should live to see the next century; if my daughters should be so lucky to live as long as Ann Nixon Cooper, what change will they see? What progress will we have made?

This is our chance to answer that call. This is our moment. This is our time – to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American Dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth – that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism, and doubt, and those who tell us that we cant, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people:

Yes We Can. Thank you, God bless you, and may God Bless the United States of America.

UPDATE: I had posted a “video” from YouTube that showed a photo of Sam Cooke with the audio of “A Change Is gonna Come” but it’s no longer available. So here’s an alternate, a version of the song sung very soulfully by a Japanese American musician, Shin Kawasaki:

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5 Responses to Barack Obama’s nod to Sam Cooke and the civil rights era

  1. Pingback: Racial Harmony? « Heylookanotherblog’s Blog

  2. Justin says:

    Nice one, Gil. Thank you.

  3. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks, Justin! Hope you’re well in China….

  4. Stephen says:

    Hi Gil,

    It’s going to be a great change for the US. I was the biggest Bill Clinton Supporter, but I just hope Obama doesn’t forget about Japan after he gets the US up and running again.

    Over here in Japan everybody hates Bush. But they still admit that they are scared how a Democrat will cooperate with Japan.

    GO OBAMA!!!

  5. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks, Stephen. It’ll be interesting to see how Obama’s administration relates to Japan.

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