As the 2012 elections approached I started to feel very guilty about the state of the country that my generation, which was born shortly after World War II, was about to leave to my grandchildren and their peers. The conservative agenda was promising to starve government services of all kinds – public schools, food stamps, even the post office – with the aim of privatizing institutions that have served our nation well for decades. More laws limiting women’s reproductive rights seemed on the horizon, global warming was being dismissed as a liberal hoax, and the rights of labor — well, don’t even go there. I was afraid to wake up to a Republican sweep and a future of desperation and dislocation for millions of Americans. It felt like a huge generational and personal failure.
Instead, the November 6 election was a salve to my baby boomer soul. Having cut my political teeth in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, organized in poor communities for jobs and decent housing, protested U.S. intervention in Vietnam and joined the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s, I saw the election as a vindication of my generation’s core values.
The alternative, a Romney sweep, would have written a different version of U.S. history – one that claimed the political and cultural wars of the 1960s were irrelevant to American’s future. Instead, those values – racial equality, women’s and gay rights, a non-interventionist foreign policy, and a commitment to narrow the economic divide, are now widely seen as the values of our country’s voting majority.
Who writes our collective history and draws the lessons from the past, of course, has been fought over for decades. While the civil rights movement has largely been embraced and, with it, Dr. Martin Luther King accepted as an iconic American fighter for freedom, the anti-Vietnam war, anti-poverty, immigrant rights and women’s movements of past decades still are not generally recognized as contributing to an expansion of human rights and as expressions of American democratic values.
With Obama’s re-election, there is now the opportunity to acknowledge the difference those movements have made to a multi-racial, fair and democratic America. And to validate the idea that grassroots movements for justice actually can influence the course of history. Obama is now saying it himself loud and clear: “You can’t change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside.” My history proves it.