Johns, Jasper (b. 1930) © VAGA, NY

Flags. 1968. Lithograph, printed in color, irreg composition: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″; irreg sheet: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″. Gift of the Celeste and Armand Bartos Foundation. (291.1968)

Location: The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, U.S.A.

Photo Credit: Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY (ART193346)

Grant Park, Chicago, November 4, 2008. It was a human river in full flood, people flowing into the gathering stream, moving, churning, surging happily forward, spilling over the shifting banks without incident and then effortlessly remaking the shore. There were children of all ages in hand or tucked into strollers and backpacks, buoyant parents delighted to let them stay up late, just this one night, in order to witness this precious and perhaps fragile moment. “Eighty years from now I want her to tell her grandchildren she was here,” a young man said to me as he posed for a picture with his infant daughter. “She’s a part of history, even if she doesn’t know it yet.”

What had been unimaginable a year, a month, even a day before had become inevitable, and on this special night and in this specific place, unforgettable—an African-American president, a community organizer in the White House, a generational shift at last. We sang and we danced, and the enchanted night sparkled in reply. We felt ourselves to be a brand-new shimmering galaxy, a little bit of heaven on earth.

The crowd was diverse in a thousand ways. I saw a newborn wrapped tight on his mother’s chest pushed up next to a small old woman smiling broadly from her wheelchair, waving an American flag in wide arcs above her head. I saw a young black police officer with a gold earring joined in a circle dance with two gray-haired white women.

We had stopped by my brother’s to watch the early returns. He and his partner are life-long Democratic Party stalwarts, and, with their friends, they had spent the weekends of the past year phone-banking and canvassing for Barack Obama in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Indiana. He had called me a week before to assure me that Obama had Indiana in his grasp, and that everyone he spoke to was breaking that way. When I’d asked where he was calling from, he said “Starbucks.” “Get the hell out of Starbucks,” I said, but he’d in fact been everywhere, and he was right.

We were tied to multiple screens: every precinct in those three battlegrounds was taken personally, every vote a distinct and intimate victory or defeat. Everyone was a little ecstatic.

We moved on to a gathering at the home of long-time radicals and peace and justice activists as the outcome was becoming clear. There was joy here, too, and a sense that this was not the end of anything, but rather a new beginning, an opening of sorts—rising expectations and expanding imaginations, but with lots of work to do tomorrow, and the next day and the next. The mood was more a sigh of relief, less an inclination to dance in the streets.

But we couldn’t resist, and before John McCain had conceded we decided that dancing in the streets was exactly what was needed, so we headed for the door with friends in tow: a young historian from the Netherlands visiting for a few days of jaw-dropping Chicago experiences, a brilliant twenty-six year old cartoonist collaborating with me on a graphic novel about teaching, and an accomplished Zimbabwean scholar whose irrepressible excitement poured steadily into his cell-phone, connecting Grant Park to the world.

I’d been a part of large crowds before this—demonstrations and rallies, sporting events and the fabulously extravagant Taste of Chicago, also held in Grant Park—but every one of them had been edged with tension or anger or demand or performance, characterized by fighting or drunkenness or gluttony or narcissism. Grant Park, 2008, was different. This was a huge mobilization sharing a deep sense of unity and satisfaction and relief—closing a door on eight years of fear and loathing, war and divisiveness. It was oddly serene and sober, and, while there was rejoicing, there was no crowing. The dominant tone was a soft purring as folks felt themselves going gently over the moon.

We saw more friends every step of the way, and we stopped for kisses and hugs and group cell phone photos, the spirit spilling seamlessly over to strangers, with more hugs, more photos. I surprised myself each time I burst into tears: first, just seeing the animated convergence grow and grow and then keep on growing; next, when I ran into two African-American high school kids I knew, their video-cams in hand, filming a curriculum project called “Searching for Democracy;” finally, standing on the exact spot where forty years ago, at the infamous 1968 Democratic Convention, I was beaten bloody by Chicago cops and hauled off to jail. I corralled two young police officers—a black woman and a Latino man—to pose with me while a friend took photos. We all had tears in our eyes.

When President-Elect Barack Obama stepped onto the Grant Park stage at the south edge of the park, the exultation rose up anew, as if for the first time. This was the moment, this was our time:

If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible…tonight is your answer…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.

There was a simple straightforwardness to his talk, an authenticity even in his acknowledgements and thank-yous that felt somehow brand new. And there was a deep bow to the reality that every community organizer knows well:

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….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 were echoes here of Amilcar Cabral, the anti-colonial African leader, insisting that the people’s movement must tell no lies and claim no easy victories, and reverberations of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s hopeful insistence that the arc of history bends toward justice, and that with effort and sacrifice we can achieve our freedom dreams. Everyone there also heard the hard reverberations of the legacy of slavery and the struggle for abolition and equality. Everyone saw a new symbol of change. And everyone felt that our imaginations, our initiatives, our creative juices would flow more freely now, that future accomplishments were newly possible. That night we remembered King’s insistent evocation of “the fierce urgency of now” and his final question: “Where do we go from here: chaos or community?”

During the heat of the primary battle, when Senator Obama was asked which candidate he thought Martin Luther King, Jr. would support, he responded without hesitation—Reverend King would not likely endorse any of us, he’d said, because he’d be in the streets building a movement for justice. That’s a community organizer’s answer and a good place to begin again.

Barack Obama looked positively Lincolnesque that night, standing tall in front of our starry sky and our vast blue-black lake, but I’m an entirely untrustworthy witness: after all, I was in the park breathing all that rarified air. It’s wonderful to breathe in the good air, to breathe out the bad air, and then just to keep on breathing—wonderful and refreshing. It’s great to feel the energy of rising expectations, to hear the sounds of heavy chains dropping from our minds, to see the shining faces of hope everywhere. It’s a moment to embrace, a moment to hold onto in tough times, and perhaps that’s why we found it so difficult to leave the park that night—this was a world in microcosm that we longed to live in. But leave the park we did, and with a renewed urgency to get busy transforming ourselves, linking up to change the world.

Here we enter the necessary if unglamorous world of organizing, of reframing debates and dialogues at every level, of animating and rebirthing our immanent frames, of challenging the insistent dogma of commonsense, of beginning political education, of enacting self-change and making a movement from the bottom up. Through what may be the most participatory national campaign in the country’s history, a new generation has learned the tools of campaigning, community organizing, political discourse, and civic debate. Their experiences ought now to be turned toward mobilizing others to insist on the changes they had hoped for and imagined. There is something stirring.

But we must remind ourselves that Lyndon Johnson, the most effective politician of his generation, the leader who passed the most far-reaching civil rights legislation since Black Reconstruction, was never involved in the Black Freedom Movement, and that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was never a labor leader. Abraham Lincoln didn’t belong to an abolitionist political party, and yet reality forced upon him the opportunity to free an enslaved people. Each of these famous and effective presidents, in fact, responded to grassroots movements—and to reality itself—to do the right thing when it mattered.

It’s to movements on the ground that we turn as we think beyond this election or the next and consider the problems and possibilities of building a future dramatically and decisively different from today. We must agitate for democracy and egalitarianism, press harder for human rights and a sustainable world, link the demands that animate us—for peace and education and universal health care and lifetime guarantees of income, against war and incarceration and surveillance—and learn to build a new society through our collective self-transformations and everyday struggles. We must seek ways to become real actors and authentic subjects in our own history. Every demand we are inclined to press on government, then, should be matched by an equally forceful demand pressed upon ourselves.

If we want a foreign policy based on justice, for example, we ought to get busy organizing a robust anti-imperialist peace movement; if we want to end the death penalty we’d better get smart about changing the dominant narrative concerning crime and punishment. In my next post, I will argue that, above all, we should focus our collective efforts on demanding education reform and reframing schools as sites for participatory democracy, for the production of fully developed human beings who are capable of controlling and transforming their own lives, citizens who can participate fully in our shared public life.

We are not allowed to sit quietly in a democracy awaiting salvation from above. We are equal, and we all need to speak out and act up, for the truth is that Barack Obama cannot save us—though, with hard work and some luck, we just might save Barack Obama.

[Editor’s note: An extended version of this essay appears in the latest issue of the Harvard Educational Review.]

[See David Kyuman Kim’s introduction to “These things are old,” a conversation about Obama, civic virtues and the common good at The Immanent Frame]