Saturday, September 12, 2009

A Little Jolt of Perspective from Ms. Baines

According to the Associated Press, Gertrude Baines, the world's oldest known person died Friday at a nursing home. She was 115.

It is hard to grasp just how different was the world into which she was born in 1894 is from the world today.  Tsar Nicholas II succeeded his father Alexander III.  He would live and rule for another twenty-four years before the Bolshevik Revolution swept him, and the Empire away.  Norman Rockwell was born, as was Nikita Khrushchev.  Robert Louis Stevenson died.   Grover Cleveland was President of the United States.  The Emancipation Proclamation had been issued 32 years prior, the Fourteenth Amendment had given African Americans the right to be citizens 26 years prior, and the Fifteenth had given African American men the vote just 24 years before.  A case then in court would ultimately require ‘separate but equal’ facilities for people of color and Caucasians just two years later in 1896 (Plessey v. Ferguson).  The strife and progress of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s was more than a half century in the future. 

When Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, there were many African Americans of all ages who expressed the view that they had thought they’d not see a black man elected as President in their lifetimes.  Particularly poignant were the faces and stories of the men and women who had fought so hard (and non-violently) in the 1950s to bring genuine equality to America.  Many of them were in their sixties and seventies, and it was touching to see their dream realized in their lifetime.

How much more amazing and touching it was to see Ms. Baines comments about the election of the President.  Baines celebrated her birthday at the nursing home April 6 with music, two cakes and a letter from President Barack Obama, whom she voted for in November. Local newscasts had shown her when she cast her ballot.  Baines, who is black, said she backed him "because he's for the colored." She said she never thought she would live to see a black man become president.

Like so many African Americans on election eve, Ms. Baines had hoped to live to see a  black man elected President, but doubted that she would.  When she was born, President Cleveland was the 24th President.  Barack Obama is the 44th President.  Ms. Baines had seen twenty men elected and serve before finally getting her wish.  Of course, she saw so many other amazing changes in her time that it is tough to imagine – radio, television, space travel, two wars to end all wars, the nuclear era, mass production, all modern technology…the list is mind boggling.  Still, I doubt that there was a more meaningful and powerful change in her lifetime than living long enough to see an African American elected President. 

Ms. Baines once joked that she won the genetic lottery to achieve her age.  I think she also won the political lottery in living long enough to vote for, and see elected, and African American President. 

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Sunshine on Discovery Bay

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