A Real Chance For Change

Letters 08-29-08

A tear welled up in the eye of my friend, James Calgie, as we had lunch together last week. "What does it mean if Barack Obama is elected?" I had asked him.

"It means that a black mother can truthfully tell her child, 'You can be anything you want to be,'" said the 94-year-old black veteran of World War II. He served in France in a segregated unit. This longtime Cleveland community activist and organizer became animated when asked what an Obama presidency could mean for young black men.

"It means that those who want to get ahead will apply themselves to studies, hard work and school without being accused of being white," he said. "They will try harder. Of course, not all young people are thinking about how they can improve themselves. But those that are will now have an example that hard work and study pay off. And many more will do it."

For eight years, I worked as a Legal Aid lawyer in poor, black neighborhoods, watching people struggle to pursue the American dream. For 30 years, I served as a felony-level judge seeing many who had stumbled. Now, I pondered the impact that the election of Barack Obama might have on those in the black community who are in the early years of their quest to realize the American dream.

In a span of 48 hours, four individuals whose lives intersect with a long struggling segment of society answered this question - What does it mean if Barack Obama is elected? - with a sense of hope that rarely rises out of the noise of a presidential election.

The day after my lunch with Jim Calgie, a black woman sat down next to me on an RTA train. "You look familiar," she said. I introduced myself. "You were my judge," she said, surprising us both. "You put me on probation in 2000."

She reminded me that by age 30 she had been to the penitentiary twice for theft offenses. When she came before me, her offense was possession of a small amount of crack cocaine. I placed her on four years' probation and ordered her into drug treatment. Now, at the age of 38, she'd had no subsequent convictions and is pursuing a certificate from Cuyahoga Community College. But her record makes it difficult to find work. In the primary, she voted for Hillary Clinton. She was certainly going to vote now for Obama. But there was qualification in her voice. She desperately wanted Obama to win. But was he ready? she asked, seeking reassurance.

I asked if she agreed with Jim Calgie's sentiments.


Less than an hour after that conversation, quite by coincidence, I received a call from an Amherst College schoolmate, former ambassador Ulrich Haynes Jr. Rick was the only black in his class of about 225. In the Carter administration, he served for four years as U.S. Ambassador to Algeria. One of Rick's tasks now was to persuade his white colleagues from Amherst to vote for Obama.

"An Obama presidency," he told me, "will offer unmotivated black males in America a role model to emulate other than criminals, rappers, athletes, preachers and entertainers. Obama's presidency will also benefit whites. It will show them that there are no racial differences in ability or intelligence.

"But we need more than motivation of young black men and white respect. We must work together to end the gaps in inferior educational institutions, inferior health care, disparities in our justice system and so many other road blocks which still make the black struggle so difficult."

Four hours after my talk with Ambass-ador Haynes, my wife and I had dinner with Mary Lynne and Ken McGovern. For the last 19 years, Mary Lynne has been the faculty co-advisor at Shaker Heights High School for the MAC scholars program. That program enlists male, African-American high-school juniors and seniors to recruit and mentor "potential scholars" - black male middle-schoolersts, incoming freshmen and sophomores. Many of the MAC scholars go on to attend some of America's top colleges.

"If Obama is elected, it will take our MAC scholars to a new level," Mary Lynne said. "His example could forever change our landscape."

As I lay in bed that night, I thought about my African-American college roommate, Fred, who had been an Eagle Scout and attended Amherst on a scholarship. In our frequent dorm-room discussions, Fred talked about a black predecessor at Amherst who got a medical degree but couldn't establish a practice because he couldn't get privileges at the local hospital. That precedent haunted Fred. He got a law degree and established a small practice in his hometown but he never reached the heights that he could have. Fred's cynicism held him back.

Undoubtedly, the barriers of cynicism, discrimination, poverty and more remain. But now there seems to be something else that is linked to a potential presidency.

Now Jim Calgie sees African-American mothers telling their children, "Yes, you can." Ulrich Haynes Jr. sees blacks and whites allied in a bond of common understanding and respect, working together to realize our nation's great potential. Mary Lynne McGovern sees more youths with drive and direction. And an unemployed woman who was once on probation dares to embrace the audacious hope of change.

Burt Griffin

Former judge, Cuyahoga County

Court of Common Pleas