Bob Dickerman | Colonel Christmas

When Barack Obama took the oath of office as the 44th president of the United States on Jan. 20, I was thinking of Colonel Frank Christmas.
Colonel Christmas, an African-American veteran who had fought for his country through two wars, mostly in segregated units, was the oldest member of a 1961 class of newly-sworn-in Foreign Service Officers.

All of us had all been inspired by President Kennedy’s challenge to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

But what had his country done for Colonel Christmas? He couldn’t even vote in many states, including Virginia. And when several of us unthinkingly invited him to join us at an Arlington diner for lunch one day, the outraged manager ordered us out, promising to call the police if we didn’t leave immediately.

So why in the world would this gentle warrior want to represent his country abroad as a diplomat, working daily to win supporters and friends for a homeland in which he was, at best, a second-class citizen?

The answer, I believe, is that there have been men and women “of color” who have, in every generation since our (often slave-holding) ancestors declared that “all men are created equal, and endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights,” challenged us to live up to our ideals, and not down to our baser, tribal proclivities.

The fight was here at home, but the onlookers spanned the globe. We are not a modest people: we are “the greatest country in the world,” “the leader of the free world,” the self-designated examplar to all. But the same world that admired much that we did and said knew also of the less-than-equal, less-than-exemplary, status of the “colored” one-tenth of our population. They — and the majority of the world’s peoples are, of course, “of color”—knew we were failing to ensure at home what we said we sought abroad.

But we were fortunate: while others fought the battle here at home, African-Americans like Colonel Christmas, Dr Ralph Bunch, Carl Rowan, Donald McHenry and Andrew Young and, yes, Colin Powell and Condolezza Rice, demonstrated abroad, for friend and foe alike, that American diversity was not a vulnerability, but a mighty strength.

And now we have a president whose very life attests to our maturing as a nation. This alone will not end racism here or elsewhere. But hopefully, after the Obama presidency, the tint of a candidate’s skin will be as irrelevant as the color of his or her eyes. Barack Obama is clearly an individual of extraordinary qualities. Objectively, the least significant of these is his color. But the fact that we have now chosen a president “of color” means that we are, finally, closer to becoming the nation we have for so long claimed to be. This is truly a day to celebrate.

 

– In a 30 year Foreign Service career, Staunton native Bob Dickerman served in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Caribbean.


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