Robert Stein 1924-2014

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Two Little White Girls

Barack Obama ended his speech with the story of a young white woman who worked for his South Carolina campaign.

In a discussion of why they were there, Ashley Baia told volunteers that when she was nine years old, her mother was stricken with cancer, lost her health care and had to file for bankruptcy and that she "convinced her mother that what she really liked and really wanted to eat more than anything else was mustard and relish sandwiches. Because that was the cheapest way to eat.

"She did this for a year until her mom got better," Obama said, "and she told everyone at the round table that the reason she joined our campaign was so that she could help the millions of other children in the country who want and need to help their parents too."

When it was the turn of an elderly black man to explain why he was there, he answered, "I'm here because of Ashley."

That experience typified his campaign, Obama said: “'I’m here because of Ashley.' By itself, that single moment of recognition between that young white girl and that old black man is not enough...But it is where we start. It is where our union grows stronger."

Obama had told that story when he spoke at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Martin Luther King's birthday and, for an older observer, it resonates with the story Dr. King told in his last speech in Memphis the night before he died.

After being stabbed by a demented woman in Harlem, he had received a letter: "Dear Dr. King: I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School. While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I am a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I'm simply writing you to say that I'm so happy that you didn't sneeze."

In leading up to his "I've been to the mountain top" peroration, Martin Luther King said:

"And I want to say tonight, I want to say that I am happy that I didn't sneeze. Because if I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been around here in 1960, when students all over the South started sitting-in at lunch counters. And I knew that as they were sitting in, they were really standing up for the best in the American dream. And taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

"If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been around in 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Georgia, decided to straighten their backs up. And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can't ride your back unless it is bent.

"If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been here in 1963, when the black people of Birmingham, Alabama, aroused the conscience of this nation, and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill. If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have had a chance later that year, in August, to try to tell America about a dream that I had had. If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been down in Selma, Alabama, been in Memphis to see the community rally around those brothers and sisters who are suffering. I'm so happy that I didn't sneeze."

Two stories. Two little white girls. Two African-American men. Two moments of connection half a century apart. One American dream.

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