Looking back, looking forward

In Barack Obama’s acceptance speech in front of 125,000 supporters in Chicago, the president-elect referenced one of the greatest songs in American history: Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” In the song—originally released in 1963, two years after Obama’s birth—Cooke dreamed of a not-so-distant future when Americans would be free of the racial hatred and violence that’s infected our country since its inception. Obama placed Cooke’s dream into the present: “It’s been a long time coming,” he told the crowd. “But tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.”

Sam Cooke wrote the tune the same year as the march on Washington; the same year that a Mississippi assassin shot down NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evers for leading a voter drive. In Asheville, high school was still completely segregated in 1963: Black students went to Stephens-Lee and white students went to Lee H. Edwards, which became Asheville High in 1969. The school board first implemented an integration plan in the 1961-62 school year when they opened grades one through three to minority transfer students. Later, the 1964 Civil Rights Act forced North Carolina schools to devise a more thorough plan to desegregate schools, one that actually mixed black and white students together instead of offering token examples of integration.

Obama’s beautiful speech connected our not-so-distance past to the future we all live in today. The election of a black president is proof of progress, but we still have deep-seated wounds from our turbulent history. We need to confront the past and acknowledge the institutionalized discrimination that still keeps people of all backgrounds mired in poverty. A change has come, but we still have a long way to go.

— Ben Smith
Asheville

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