Teri Orr: And the people say … amen
I hadn’t planned to spend all of Thursday morning watching the funeral of civil rights legend and Congressman John Lewis. I caught a snippet on the radio in the car when I was coming back from the post office. Listening to the cadence of Bill Clinton made me remember being in Memphis years ago in the Civil Rights Museum — at a dinner honoring Clinton and hearing him speak — just like that.
A few years later — a second-home owner here said he had heard about this senator out of Chicago that was going to take a run for president — it was 2006. The odds were he wouldn’t make this time but maybe we could have him come speak in his exploratory phase.
I helped with some of the advance work. Because Barack Obama was Black and in the running to be running for president, he had already been assigned Secret Service. Steve and I got along swimmingly. He was laid back. And a problem solver and happy to be working with the young senator — who was close to his own age.
The plan was pretty simple — the plane would land in Salt Lake City. They would drive Obama up to Park City. He would do what is called “a honk and wave” — where he would slow down at the area of the Chamber offices so non-ticketed folks could see him. Then he would head to the fancy event on Old Ranch Road. The closer we got to that summer Sunday the more his stock was rising. I can’t remember all the reasons but lots of folks wanted a chance to see him.
Maybe hope was in the air.
Steve was communicating constantly with Obama’s team. As they landed he told them instead of a handful of people — there were 200, maybe more, folks gathered. Obama then wanted to change plans. He wanted to stop — in what was then a big dirt parking lot with a grassy knoll and a tiny Chamber office. Steve tried to explain to his contact — there wasn’t any way to make it work well. I think his contact said something like — make it happen for The Candidate. So we had a megaphone in the trunk of the car (as all good event planners do) and we asked if anyone had any kind of sound system with them. In true Park City fashion — some musician hadn’t unloaded his gear from a gig the night before. We grabbed all the bike racks we could from the Chamber to form a perimeter that would act as some kind of barricade.
“He’ll want to be elevated to speak,” Steve said. We were stumped — until someone from the Chamber came out with a hard plastic milk crate. And Voila! As the black SUV came off from the freeway — we had an event space — complete with a sound guy. I remember two things about what happened next. Barack Obama spoke in his spellbinding way. Not a “thanks for coming out folks — I hope you’ll vote for me,” but a whole speech — like he just had it in his pocket. And then, he shook every single person’s hand that was standing there in the hot sun. Every one.
It made him late by an hour to the Big Event. I left the Chamber site and followed Steve to Old Ranch Road. Obama had arrived and was visiting with the hosts before he got under the giant lovely tent with the terrific comfy outdoor seats for the folks who had paid a great deal of money to see this fresh new hopeful candidate. And then he started to speak. It didn’t take me long to realize I knew where his sentences were headed. It was the same speech he had decided to give — for free — to all those folks who had waited hours without fancy drinks with tiny umbrellas. He was every bit as gracious of course — but he hadn’t suddenly turned up the sincerity or the enthusiasm. He was who he was.
And I was flashing back on all that when I saw him honoring his friend, the late John Lewis — the civil rights legend who Obama had looked up to as young man. He told the story how at his inauguration John Lewis asked — now president — Obama to sign his commemorative program. And Obama wrote … Because of you, John. Barack Obama knew that being the first Black president — in the 200-plus years of the United States — had only happened because of men like John Lewis — who had been jailed and beat up and fought repeatedly for just the right to vote and the right to walk into any room where things happen.
In his eulogy Obama sounded every bit again like the campaigner — the way to honor John, he said, was to revitalize the Voting Rights Act — the law John had been willing to die for.
Obama said — Make Election Day a national holiday and give equal representation for all the citizens who live in Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. (Let them vote).
And Moral Courage. He used that phrase — “We must have the moral courage to do what is right — the fate of democracy … is in how we use that God-given power.”
He spoke in the Black Church Preacher’s voice. The Harvard-educated lawyer was droppin’ the g’s at the end of his words. He knew the cadence — he knew the rhythm — he knew how to build to a big finish. I suspect — I wasn’t the only one at home alone watching who said — Amen! out loud — as he finished.
John Lewis spent his entire life fighting for civil rights. The day before he entered the hospital for the last time he asked to be taken to the Black Lives Matter plaza in D.C. He wanted to see that what he started was going to continue.
He arranged to have his final letter to the American people drop in the New York Times on the day of his funereal. The last journey he would take. And in his letter he implored …
“Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.”
One of the ministers at the legendary Ebenezer Baptist Church used Shakespeare’s words as his benediction:
“Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night …”
Late that evening when I thought I would sleep — a noise down the street startled me. I stepped out my door into the yard. The noise was simply a new cadence to someone’s sprinklers.
But once outside I had to look up at the bright night sky. The moon was large and white in the blue-black sky and I don’t know if I was looking at stars or planets but they were … pulsating. And in that moment I was “in love with night.”
May you be too, this Sunday in the Park …
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the founder and director emeritus of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
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