The genius of America

By Prof Alemayehu G. Mariam / November 10, 2008

Long Road From the Slave Cabins to the White House

In 1776, the American Declaration of Independence announced to the world “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” African slaves were left out of the category of “all men”. In 1787, the U.S. Constitution declared “We the people of the United States do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” The African slaves were not part of the “We the People”. They were just “three-fifths of other persons”. In 1858, Abraham Lincoln deeply agonized over slavery: “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free.” Between 1861-65, Lincoln presided over a nation torn by a civil war over the issue of slavery. In 1863, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation and freed “all persons held as slaves within the rebellious areas.” Between 1865-70, the American Constitution was amended three times to abolish slavery, extend basic liberties and equality to the freed African slaves and to grant them the most precious of all political rights, voting. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 declaring all persons born in the United States to be American citizens with full legal and economic rights. A century later, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawing all discrimination in public accommodations and employment. A year later the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed prohibiting discriminatory practices that had prevented African Americans from exercising their right to vote. On July 21, 1861, the first major military conflict in the American civil war occurred in Virginia at the Battle of Bull Run (Manassas). On November 4, 2008, Barack Obama was elected president when Virginia cast its 27 electoral votes putting him over the required 270 to become president of the United States. Such was the long journey of African Americans -- from the slave cabins and plantations to the Rose Garden and the Oval Office of the White House. Only in America is such a journey possible!

Questions for the Power of American Democracy

The Barack Obama story can be told only in America. Nowhere else. He said it himself, “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.” But the struggle for equality, justice and freedom for African Americans spans centuries. In 1822, Denmark Vesey, a slave, organized a massive revolt of over 9000 slaves toiling on the plantations. He was betrayed. William Lloyd Garrison, a white man, campaigned relentlessly for the abolition of slavery. He condemned the slave masters, “We are living under an awful despotism--that of a brutal slave oligarchy.” In protest, Garrison publicly burned a copy of the U.S. Constitution in 1854 causing a huge brouhaha. John Brown, a white man, was so impassioned against the immorality of the institution of slavery that in 1859 he led a party of 21 men in a successful attack on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Maryland. Brown believed only armed insurrection could end slavery and bring about racial equality in America. But equality, justice and freedom remained elusive for African Americans. Frederick Douglas, (a former slave and the first African-American nominated as a Vice Presidential candidate in the U.S., running on the Equal Rights Party ticket in 1872), wondered what made a nation secure. He concluded that “The life of a nation is secure only while the nation is honest, truthful, and virtuous.”

Just a few decades ago, Dr. Marin Luther King was turned back from the Bank of Justice: “It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.'" On November 4, 2008, Barack Obama finally presented that check to the American people and cashed it at the ballot box and became the 44th President of the United States with 364 electoral votes. Malcom X guided African Americans who had lost their way on the long road to equality. He urged, “Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.” Barack Obama got his passport with top honors from Columbia and Harvard Universities. Rosa Parks, the mother of the American civil rights movement, struggled to answer the question of how a free person should live. “Each person must live their life as a model for others,” she instructed. Three young Americans, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, became model freedom riders of their generation, and gave up their lives fighting for civil rights during the Freedom Summer of 1964.

There was always hope and faith in the power of American democracy. In 1968, in a prophetic speech to the Voice of America heard all over the world, Bobby Kennedy said that things are “moving so fast in race relations [in the U.S] a Negro could be president in 40 years. There’s no question about it. In the next 40 years a Negro can achieve the same position that my brother has. But we have tried to make progress and we are making progress. We are not going to accept the status quo.” Barack Obama became President of the United States exactly forty years later. Barack now stands on the shoulders of these American giants and many others like them as a beacon of hope and change not only for Americans, but for all people around the world. Barack is right, “America is a place where all things are possible.” Possible beyond a reasonable doubt!

How Did Team Obama Manage to Pull it Off?

A thousand reasons could be given to explain why Barack won. It was the dismal economy; the eight years of a rudderless Republican administration; the war in Iraq ($600 billion and thousands of lives lost); the ballooning budget deficit (total U.S. federal debt passed the $10 trillion mark in September 2008); republican leaders getting entangled in all sorts of scandals, corruption and ethical lapses (Republican Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, a 40 year veteran of the Senate was convicted of 7 felony corruption charges a week before the election); a republican opponent who campaigned with the “gang who couldn’t shoot straight”, and so on. But there are two reasons that explain Barack’s victory more convincingly than any others: 1) a message of change based on the unity of the American people, and 2) massive grassroots organization and mobilization. Barack understood the key to America’s international leadership and domestic tranquility depends upon its people coming together and harnessing their energies to face the great challenges of the day. Like Lincoln, he understood “a house divided can not stand.” That is why he made unity of the American people the foundation -- the mantra -- of his campaign: “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America -- there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America -- there’s the United States of America. We are not a collection of Red States and Blue States -- We are the United States of America.” This message of unity touched a deep chord in the American psyche and “can do” spirit. By accentuating the unity of the American people, Barack recaptured for this generation of Americans the spirit of the Founders: E pluribus unum. Out of many, one! (If one might add: Out of many colors, one America.)

Second, Barack won because he understood the power of grassroots organization and mobilization. He was inspired deeply by the civil rights movement and its methods of mass mobilization and action. In Dreams From My Father, he wrote: “Change won’t come from the top, I would say. Change will come from a mobilized grass roots.” He created a grassroots campaign organization and recruited a massive cyber-army of energetic volunteer activists committed to him as a person and his ideals. They worked gangbusters to get him elected. In his victory speech, he did not commend the party leaders and operatives; he shared his victory with his triumphant army of volunteers. He said his campaign “was built by working men and women who dug into what little savings they had to give five dollars and ten dollars… 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.”

Questions for Ethiopians: Can we….?

Barack Obama got a resounding “Yes, we can!” from the American people to his questions. As Ethiopians we have many questions to answer: Can we produce leaders who inspire us with hope and faith in the future? Leaders who are able to put our humanity before our ethnicity, our Ethiopianity, our Africanity? Can we get leaders who can unite us as one people in an Ethiopian nation instead of keep us corralled in a nation of shredded nationalities? Can we get leaders who embrace the politics of unity and shun the politics of ethnic identity? Can we replace benighted demagogues with enlightened visionary leaders? Engage leaders with the courage of their convictions and hold accountable criminals who convict the innocents? Can we cultivate leaders who persuade by the power of their logic and substance of their arguments instead of dictators who measure their power by the diameter of the barrel of their guns and the caliber of their bullets? Can we develop leaders who speak truth to dictators living in gilded castles of lies? Can we replace brutes who rule by the law of the jungle with leaders who understand, believe in and practice the rule of law? Can we assemble leaders who respect the human rights and dignity of the least of their citizens and are committed to bringing to justice murderers and thugs who have built a memorial to their power on the gravesite of their innocent victims? I say, YES, WE CAN! Oh! Yes, we can. But first we must believe in the creed of our inner strength as a people: The unity of the Ethiopian people. The territorial integrity of the Ethiopian nation. The inalienable right of all Ethiopians to human rights and their entitlement to freedom and democracy.

To paraphrase Barack Obama, if there any despots out there who still doubt the volcanic power of democracy and Ethiopia’s destiny that she will soon overcome ethnic division with national unity, conquer 17 years of fear with eternal hope and faith, redress government wrongs with human rights and forge a common and glorious destiny, you have your answer: Ethiopia is not a collection of nationalities, ethnicities, kilils and kebeles. There is no Ethiopia that is the exclusive possession of the Oromo, the Amhara, the Tigray, the Guragie, the Sidama, the Anuak, the Welayita or any of the other groups. There is one and ONLY one Ethiopia and it belongs equally to all of its peoples. We are, and always will be, the children of one mother: Ethiopia!

The Obama Karma: Proud to be an Ethio-Amer-I-Can

We should be proud as Americans and Ethio-Amer-I-cans. When dictators and thugs of all stripes ravaged our homeland, America embraced us and gave us shelter. When the voices of our people were silenced in broad daylight, America gave the right to vote in a secret ballot. When our people live in a land that has become a virtual prison, we live in freedom and dignity, our rights secure in the American Constitution. When our people live in the sweltering heat of a ruthless dictatorship, we breathe the fresh air of freedom and democracy. Barack is right, “America is a place where all things are possible.” Yes, it is the one place where free speech, a free press, the free exercise of religion, freedom of association and freedom to petition for grievances are all possible. It is the one place where our privacy is respected from government intrusion and we are guaranteed the due process of law. It is the one place where the high and mighty kneel down before the supreme law of the land and are held accountable for their actions and omissions. Just a few of the thousands of reasons we can be proud to be Ethio-Amer-I-cans.

The True Genius of America

Barack said, “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.” He put out a call for a new spirit of patriotism: “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. In this country, we rise or fall as one nation -- as one people.” Barack was optimistic but not naïve: “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.” Could he be talking to Ethiopians? Are we listening? Well, if change is good enough for Barack Obama and America, it is good enough for Ethiopians and Ethiopia! “We will rise or fall as one nation -- as one Ethiopian people.” Look over the horizon. A furious wind of change is blowing eastward. That wind to our back, the sun shining warmly on our faces, let’s saddle up, human rights riders! Yes, we can ride out the long odyssey to freedom, and make history!

The writer, Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. For comments, he can be reached at