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From Slavery to Obama: 'Heed Their Rising Voices'

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In a college classroom earlier this week I witnessed the moral clarity of the so-called "Millennial Generation." The "MG" has been described as people born around the early 1980s and afterward, for whom technological savvy is the norm and constant communication the expectation.

The post election results of the coalition of groups who re-elected President Obama indicate that among the record turnout by Hispanics, LGBTs, Asians and African Americans, the Millennials constituted the margin of victory for referenda on gay rights in several states and the recreational use of marijuana in Colorado.

This fall I'm teaching a 15-week course called "From Slavery to Obama," at the University of San Francisco, where I am serving as a visiting professor. The subject matter has been re-configured from a course I initially created and taught, as a two-and-a-half-hour, 10-week seminar, for students enrolled in the Masters degree program at Stanford University's Graduate Education Program of Continuing Education.

The course was inspired by the renowned sociologist and historian W.E.B. Du Bois' Souls of Black Folk and the election Barack Obama in 2008 as the 44th president of the United States. Published in 1903, in commenting on the legacy of slavery in America, Dr. Du Bois wrote that "the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line."

In my syllabus' description of "From Slavery to Obama," I wrote:

More than a hundred years after he wrote those words, the racial struggles in the United States remain the most pervasive theme in our history. Slavery, the Civil War, and nearly a century of racial segregation stand as stains on the moral fabric of our country. However, frank discussions on race and its impact on society has become taboo. This course is designed to enable an honest and critical discussion of race in America.

The assigned weekly readings include, but are not limited to either excerpts or the entire book of such works as The Fire Next Time (James Baldwin), The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South (Kenneth Stampp), From Slavery to Freedom (John Hope Franklin) Blacks (Poetry by Gwendolyn Brooks), The Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison), Freedom Road (Howard Fast), Black Reconstruction in America-1860-1880, Soul on Ice, (Eldridge Cleaver, "Commencement Address, Howard University, 1965" (President Lyndon Johnson), Dr. King's April 1963 "Letter From Birmingham Jail," and others.

The moral clarity I witnessed in my classroom at USF occurred when a Millennial student, a young white woman, commented that she wished that all the households of 310 or so million people in our country could read the books in the course and participate in in our classroom discussions. She expressed the hope that "there would come a time when we as a nation will be able get beyond the issue of 'race.'"

On March 29th, 1960, "The Committee To Defend Martin Luther King, Jr" ran a full-page ad in the New York Times under the caption "Heed Their Rising Voices."

It described the actions of the police, in Birmingham, Ala., many of whom were on horseback, against the peaceful protest of civil rights demonstrators. The protest demonstrations were part of the efforts at that time to desegregate lunch counters, department stores, and other public facilities in the city of Birmingham.

I thought to myself: How I wish that more of our political leaders, in both parties, would the heed the rising voices of our new Millennial generation. With their iPads, laptops, iPhones, Twitter and Facebook, they are processing and digesting more information about our country in 2012 than those of us who were associated with the March 1960 full-page ad on behalf of Martin Luther King, Jr.

I wonder whether Mitt Romney and the Republican Party are aware of some of the very profound issues that are the subjects of major concern by the Millennials. It often appears as though he and various leaders or spokespeople for the Republican Party are currently living in a "parallel universe." Classically defined, this is a universe of an alternative reality; a self-contained separate reality coexisting with that of the Millennials and the rest of us.

How else to explain Governor Romney's recent comments as to why he lost the election?

Romney believes Obama won because he was able to "bribe" those who constituted his voting base with all sorts of free government "giveaways" and "goodies." This goodies are interest college loans, the Dream Act for children of undocumented immigrants, "free heath care," "contraceptives for women" and food stamp subsistence for the poor.

To paraphrase Bob Dylan, "How many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry?"

Is Romney so trapped in a parallel universe that he believes what he said were the reasons for his loss to President Obama?

Romney, the Tea Party and conservative members of the Republican Party need to "heed the rising voices" of this new generation of Americans. The Millenial generation's belief systems have not been shaped by nor are they trapped in Don Draper's Mad Men world, which shaped the weltanschauung of that generation of households in our nation.

Race was the 800-lb. gorilla that they went to great lengths to exclude from their living and dining rooms. Few had the moral clarity of today's USF students in my course.

Thankfully, Steven Spielberg's new movie Lincoln, currently on theaters, provides a moral compass to help us better understand and be more comfortable in our continuing -- and unavoidable -- discussion of race in the United States.

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