As one born in 1935 in the deep south who saw my father and oldest brother go off to Europe and Asia to fight in World War II and return home to Georgia unable by law to vote in the white primary, I stand here today—astonished, smashed, unbelieving, incredulous—that America has come to this place and time.
It is truly springtime in America.
But how did we get to this historic moment? Who planted the seeds that have brought forth this new fruit in our democracy?
Lest we forget that this event was brought about in part by the actions of men and women who at particular moments in time followed a deeply felt obligation to disturb the unjust peace and thereby advance the cause of justice.
Let me briefly cite examples—each of which is part of the long chain of events which have produced this singular moment in American political history.
Let us look beyond this year and back to a historic moment which gave women in America the right to vote for the first time in our history.
It began in 1776 when Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, John, attending the Continental Congress in Philadelphia and working on the Declaration of Independence.
She wrote, "Remember the ladies."
It fell on deaf ears because the declaration specifies that "all men are created equal."
In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt's Pro-gressive Party becomes the first national political party to adopt a women's suf-frage plank.
In 1916, Jeannette Rankin, of Montana, becomes the first American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
On August 26, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment, called the Anthony Amendment, was ratified by one vote in the Tennessee legislature. That one vote cast to break the tie was by Henry Burn, a twenty-four-year-old antisuffragist whose mother instructed him to "remember the ladies."
Whatever your view of Hillary Clinton, she and her candidacy are the result of more than a century of work toward suffrage. Lest we forget that as Americans, regardless of party or preference, we should celebrate this milestone in our political process.
Further, as you contemplate Barack Obama's meteoric rise from a state senator in Illinois to a major contender for the Democratic nomination, whatever your view of him:
Read the 1947 U.S. District Court decision in Elmore v. Rice, which struck down the white primary in South Carolina.
Read the 1944 Supreme Court decision in Smith v. Allright, which struck down the white primary in Texas.
Read the 1945 U.S. District Court and the 1946 U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decisions in King v. Chatman, which struck down the white primary in Georgia.
All of these cases were brought because blacks were denied the right to vote in the white primaries, which were controlled by state election officials and were tantamount to election.
These cases were brought by three black men who were disturbers of the unjust peace—George Elmore, Dr. Lonnie Smith, and Primus King. I met Dr. Lonnie Smith and I met George Elmore, but I knew Primus King. Primus King was my man.
Born in 1900 in Hatchechubbee, Alabama, the son of sharecroppers, Primus E. King grew up in Columbus, Georgia, where his parents had moved to escape the grinding oppression of the sharecropping system. King was unlettered—like many Southern blacks in those decades for whom the state and local governments made formal schooling an impossibility.
But Primus King well understood the denial of rights blacks endured. His determination to be as independent as possible of the South's Jim Crow–rigged system of government and social relations showed itself early in his learning the trade of barbering. Later, in 1939, King's religious faith led him to become an itinerant Sunday preacher, ministering as called by one of the many small black churches that dotted the Black Belt countryside in Georgia and Alabama. It was that faith, he later said, which fortified him for the task he undertook on July 4, 1944.
On that day, Reverend Primus King walked into the Muscogee County Courthouse in Columbus, Georgia, to cast his vote in the state's Democratic Party primary election. Because the racist Democratic Party monopolized political activity in Georgia as it did throughout the South, the primary determined the outcome of the general election. For that very reason, the state Democratic Party barred blacks from voting in the primary. It was that travesty of democracy that King, quietly supported by the local NAACP, intended to change.
"I am a citizen of this city and this state," he declared to the white election officials that day. "I own property. I pay taxes. I can read and write and do arithmetic, and I have not committed a crime of moral turpitude. I have come to vote."
His words got King roughly escorted out of the courthouse by police officers. But King persisted, and with the prearranged help of two local white lawyers, filed a federal suit to outlaw blacks' exclusion from the Democratic primary.
That brought a warning from party officials, who summoned King before them and bluntly told him that "if you don't withdraw the lawsuit, you could end up in the Chattahoochie River."
King, standing alone before the pillars of segregationist power, replied, "Well, if that happens, then at least I'll be thrown in the river for something, as opposed to all the colored people who've been thrown in there for nothing." And he walked out.
In October 1945, the Federal District Court in Macon, Georgia, ruled in King's favor, striking down the Georgia white primary. In March 1946, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans upheld that ruling, and the following month the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the Georgia Democratic Party's appeal.
The all-white Georgia Democratic primary now officially stood where it belonged—outside the bounds of the Constitution of the United States.
From George Elmore, Primus King, and Lonnie Smith to Barack Obama—lest we forget the journey.
And finally, it is a long way from the prisons of Vietnam, five and a half years of captivity, to the Republican nomination for president of the United States—lest we forget John McCain's journey, whatever our party affiliation or political differences.
Three Americans—a black, a woman, a senior citizen—contending for the highest office in the land. Let us be proud of this moment.
And lest we forget that moments like this are not happenstance: They are the direct result of the work, sacrifice, and passion of disturbers of the unjust peace.
And for the most part in our country, these disturbers of the unjust peace are unsung, unheralded, unknown, unappreciated. But they are our heroes.