In 1988, after the Maryland GOP’s nominee, primary winner Thomas Blair, abruptly ended his campaign for the U.S. Senate, some leaders of the Maryland GOP approached my former boss, former U.S. Ambassador to the UN Jeanne Kirkpatrick, to ask whether she would be willing to replace him as the Party’s nominee to run against the Democrat Paul Sarbanes. She demurred.
She called me afterward, somewhat apologetically, to let me know that, when they asked her to suggest someone who might be a suitable alternative, she suggested my name. In her usual, intellectually straightforward way, she said bluntly that she didn’t think she had done me a favor. She observed that Sarbanes was a strong incumbent. As a late entry into the race, in a decidedly Democratic state, and being a person virtually unknown even to Maryland’s GOP voters, she thought it likely that I would get trounced. But, if I ran a creditable campaign, it might do me some good in the long run.
Others I spoke to verified Ambassador Kirkpatrick’s assessment, except for the likelihood that I would somehow benefit politically, even in defeat. Some also shared the view that the GOP strongholds in Maryland were in the areas of the state most likely to harbor racial prejudice, with roots going all the way back to the pre-Civil War period. They also thought that anti-GOP bigotry in the heavily Democratic black areas of the State would drive most black voters to reject me as a traitor to my race, without bothering to take a look.
In the event, these discouraging words proved mostly accurate, with one noteworthy exception. As I campaigned in the areas where the GOP had its greatest strength, I was enthusiastically received. Either the predictions of deeply rooted, lingering racism were simply wrong, or the voters they referred to didn’t bother to show up when I did. At that time, such encounters as I did have that smacked somewhat of bigotry, involved voters who reacted adversely to my identity as a practicing Roman Catholic.
However, some people went out of their way to tell me that, because I was black they had prejudiced expectations about my likely views on issues they cared about, but after hearing what I had to say about those issues they would support me enthusiastically. And they did. Some white voters I met obviously felt they had something to prove when it came to liberal charges of racism, and they were glad of the opportunity to prove them wrong by voting for someone who truly represented their thinking, no matter the color of his skin. In this respect, I can attest to the fact that many white Americans have the integrity to cast a vote that follows their true conviction, regardless of race.
However, the mostly “liberal” media was something else. My race was their obsession. It was as if they were incapable of seeing anything else. Because most of them shared the Democrat Party’s political perspective, they were also prey to another kind of race based bigotry, the kind I later pointedly encountered from Larry King. During an appearance on his show he once asked me how I could hold conservative views after all that liberals had done for blacks. Aside from his patronizing presumption, there was the almost comical irony of having my race held against me because I dared to exercise the liberty Larry King claimed he and his liberal buddies had won for me.
All in all, my experience in American politics deepened my resolve never to take a stand contrary to my true convictions, rationally arrived at, on racial or any other grounds. I felt, and still strongly feel, that this resolve rightly reflects the best part of my heritage as a Black American; the part that moved Martin Luther King to dream of a world in which people would not be judged by the color of their skin; the part that moved Frederick Douglass to fight slavery, not just as racial injustice, but as a violation of God’s justice toward humanity; the part that led both men to cherish and rely upon the words of the American Declaration of Independence, which define liberty in terms of right action, not the willful freedom to do wrong, in defiance of the Creator’s will.
In this respect, the people who best represented me and other black Americans in the fight for justice did so in a way that helped to identify and unite all true Americans. They did so in a way that defined our nation in terms of our moral union as decently disposed human beings, rather than in narrow terms of geography or physique. In this sense they ennobled the sacrifices blacks endured in slavery as the difficult path along which the stones that the builders rejected are hewn to become the foundation stones of the real American dream, and their hard experiences become the seeds, in existential truth, of the special destiny that makes the people of the United States a nation of nations, destined to encourage the hope of union for all humanity.
This week I wrote an article pondering the lesson America has to learn from the attacks against humanity just perpetrated in France. For reasons I don’t fully understand, it got me to thinking about the way my experience in politics has continually challenged, forged and strengthened my resolve never to forget the universal hope of humanity the American people are called to represent. As a people, we do not exist for ourselves alone. Rather we exist to serve and lift up the disposition to do right with which God strives to favor every human being who is willing to receive and act upon it.
The terrorists responsible for the Paris attacks were disposed by their bad faith to enact evil as good. But no matter what horrid and preoccupying spectacles of mayhem they contrive, the good people of the United States must never lose sight of the fact that we are preoccupied with justice and right, as positively defined by the One whose power prevails beyond the reach of fear and mayhem. As long as we sternly resolve to respect and act according to His rule, our courage and hope shall likewise prevail.