by Tony Albarella
As I watch the late coverage of this unprecedented election night, as the historical import of President-elect Obama’s victory becomes tangible and a fresh wave of enthusiasm washes over me, I am significantly, unabashedly moved. And like all writers, I have a desire to capture these feelings, to trap them in the amber of words and share them with others. I do not wish to sully this moment with a purely political statement. The events of this evening transcend politics, and more importantly, this evening is for all of us; for U.S. citizens in red states and blue states and purple states, for those few who reside at the two ideological poles and for the rest of us who fall somewhere in between.
What I do wish to do is briefly highlight the parallels between the work of Rod Serling and the timeline of racial politics in this nation’s history. The latter is a protracted, volatile struggle that includes the Civil War, The Emancipation Proclamation, the right to vote, the Civil Rights Movement. A protracted, volatile struggle that continues to this day – but one that has tonight witnessed a great victory.
It’s no secret that the injustice of prejudice and bigotry is an issue that Serling took to heart; in his work, in his actions, in his personal and professional life. “I happen to think that the singular evil of our time is prejudice,” Serling stated in an interview conducted late in his life. “It is from this evil that all other evils grow and multiply. In almost everything I’ve written there is a thread of this: a man’s seemingly palpable need to dislike someone other than himself.”
In 1955, Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old African-American from Chicago, was beaten beyond recognition and shot to death by two white men for the crime of whistling at one of the men’s wife. Rod Serling watched, transfixed and appalled, as the men – who later admitted to the murder – were acquitted by an all-white jury after a mere 67 minutes of deliberation. Serling’s attempts to dramatize the story for television, “Noon on Doomsday” for U.S. Steel Hour and Playhouse 90’s “A Town Has Turned to Dust,” were stymied by censorship from milquetoast network and sponsor executives. Both of these injustices, in their own way, triggered reform: Serling’s publicized outrage contributed to the transformation of the television industry, and Emmett Till’s story mobilized the Civil Rights Movement.
Yes, by this time, hard-fought progress had been made; slavery had been abolished; African-Americans had earned the right to vote. But the issue of desegregation tore at the fabric of the nation, instigating racial division to a degree not seen since the Civil War. Given this climate, the mere suggestion of an African-American President was absolutely inconceivable.
Serling railed against bigotry in its many forms throughout the 1959-1964 run of his signature television series, The Twilight Zone. He advanced civil rights issues in forms both creative (addressing extant social evils through parable and metaphor) and subtle (populating “The Big Tall Wish,” an episode that has no racial element to it, with an African-American cast of actors). Submitted, by way of example, for your approval: Serling’s closing commentary for the classic episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street:” “The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices – to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy, and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all its own – for the children, and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to The Twilight Zone.”
The evolution of race in politics continued. It had come far yet still had so far to go.
In 1965 and 1966, Serling looked to the past to offer lessons for the present. His short-lived series The Loner starred Lloyd Bridges as a post-Civil War officer searching for his place in a country divided. One episode focused on the blind hatred of an Indian tribe, another highlighted the abuse of a European immigrant. “The Homecoming of Lemuel Stove” told the story of African-American soldier’s unwelcome return to his hometown; it featured a pre-Ku-Klux-Klan mob and the Emmett Till-like lynching of the soldier’s father.
In 1968, Serling co-wrote the screenplay for PLANET OF THE APES, an iconic motion picture that turned race relations on its ear with a depiction of a world turned upside-down. In it, three astronauts crash-land on a planet ruled by intelligent simians; these apes deny the theory of evolution and subjugate men into slavery. This planet turns out to be our own – the Earth of our distant, post-apocalyptic future.
Throughout this period, the issue of civil rights and equality for all citizens captured headlines and rocked the American culture. African-American political representation transitioned from infancy to a painful adolescence. Rosa Parks and Reverend Martin Luther King ushered in a climate of tolerance and respect that clashed with the more militant politics of Malcolm X and the Black Power Movement.
In 1972, Serling adapted the Irving Wallace novel “The Man” into a screenplay of the same name. The film featured James Earl Jones as the first black President of the United States. Following the death of the elected President and several men in the line of succession, the job falls to Douglas Dillman (Jones). As an unelected African-American, Dillman struggles to lead a nation in mourning while battling a political system rife with entrenched, institutionalized racism. The movie’s taglines? “It took an accident to make this man President of the United States. What they do to him now won’t be an accident.” And “The first black President of the United States. First they swore him in. Then they swore to get him.”
Clearly, while the administration of an African-American President of the United States could now enter the national conversation, its realization was little more than a pipe dream.
Tonight, that dream has become a reality. Because of a continuing generational shift that has slowly, quietly eroded prejudice, another racial barrier has fallen. Tonight we have a new President. Not a black President, just a President who happens to be black. And he was elected in a landslide. At this hour, the electoral vote spread is 349 votes for Obama and 162 for McCain. This new President emerged not as the last-standing victor of a fight between an embittered, divided nation, but as the right man at the right time in the eyes of a large – and largely diverse – majority.
Admittedly this does not mean that racial animosity in America is hereby rendered extinct. Nor does it suggest that Obama’s victory was solely a referendum on America’s view of race. There were many factors in this election and many reasons for its outcome: a crumbling economy, the war in Iraq, the failures of the Bush Administration, the tone of the candidate’s campaigns, basic cultural and political differences.
But race was indeed a factor. In fact, it was the one unknown quantity in this election. We’ve already elected both Democratic and Republican Presidents. We’ve elected both conservatives and liberals. We’ve elected Presidents during war and in the aftermath of war. We’ve elected Presidents in the midst of economic and financial catastrophes. But we’ve never elected an African-American President.
I just heard Tom Brokaw utter an insightful truism: “We have yet to grasp the magnitude of this moment.” That’s entirely correct. It will likely be years or even decades before the full impact of this moment will be known.
But I do know this: Tonight, I’m incredibly proud of my country, and of my country-mates, who have joined together to overcome more than two centuries of racial divide.
And I fervently wish that Rod Serling could be here to share in, and write about, this moment.