When They Drove Old Dixie Down


They should have played “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” when Barak Obama was elected president of the United States.

It’s a song about a defining moment in the Civil War that saw the old South and all that it stood for going down to defeat.

They should have put the version by Joan Baez on a public address system and let it play over the massive audience in Grant Park like a marching song of freedom rising through the chilly night.

Everyone there and everyone in their homes and everyone all over the world should have joined in singing it. “The night they drove old Dixie down, and the bells were ringing…”

Its intention would not have been to reject the South of today but to acknowledge that the Dixie of slavery, segregation and hatred had been rejected in a new and enshrining moment of American democracy.

A black man had been elected president of the United States.

I said hatred had been rejected, not ended. Our new president is as much a symbol as a reality. He represents equality and fairness. But even those who had been his loudest supporters can’t say that the rise of this intelligent, articulate man means that the nation has at last cleansed itself of ignorance and bigotry.

It’s still out there, folks. I bring you an e-mail sent by a woman with whom I have communicated for years who seems to have suddenly lost her mind. Call her Esther. I wouldn’t distinguish her by using her real name.

She wrote: “Make sure your guns are loaded because the blacks, oh excuse, African Americans, are going to be blasting through our front door…”

She wrote: “I won’t ever distinguish him [Obama] by calling him president. He is going to turn our U.S.A. into a Communist nation, and the Muslims will rule. They will shoot every Christian on sight…”

She wrote: “Now we are in for it. We keep a shotgun by our front door, leaning in a corner. We each have a loaded hand gun in our headboards…”

The existence of our Esthers sends chills through me, but they do nothing to dampen the glory of what this nation has accomplished, overcoming Esther to emerge as good and decent people.

Other e-mailers and telephone callers celebrated the election. One wrote, “I’m so proud to be an American, I can’t describe it. Proud in a way I never thought possible two years ago.”  “What a night,” a friend shouted, “what a time!” Newspapers sold hundreds of thousands of extra copies to those who sought a piece of history to take home and keep as a souvenir of Tuesday’s triumph; as proof of change.

al_martinez.gifObama’s rise tells the world we have rejected the notion that the past is prelude to the future. We have overcome our past to create a new future, and now it’s time to dance in the streets. It’s time to sing. You know the tune: “The night they drove old Dixie down, and the people were singin’…”—about Obama, about the future and about a new place for America in this old and scary world.

Al Martinez
Al Martinez on Everything Else

Al Martinez is a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the Los Angeles Times, author of a dozen books, an Emmy-nominated creator of prime time television shows, a travel writer, humorist and general hell-raiser. Try him. He’s addictive.

Republished with permission.


  1. Julia Horner says

    I echo Sharon’s statement and the message of the commentary! I am suddenly filled with joy and a new confidence! I can lift my head again as a proud American and can feel that my voice does matter and that reason and the prospect of peaceful, pragmatic diplomacy can prevail. It is as if we can finally come out of hiding where we’ve been quietly withstanding the abuses of the mean and intolerant who trudge heavily and carry big sticks.

    I am dismayed that the forces of prejudice and injustice would continue to seek to trample those who would rather have peace and intelligent communication and empathetic cooperation. Those on the far right who wage wars of hate against their fellow human beings trumpet that they are the true Americans, the true patriots, the true children of God. But by those very exclamations and by the carrying out of ugly and divisive campaigns to undermine those who have a different outlook, they simply negate the righteousness of their claim.

    I am empowered knowing that the tide has turned, that we cannot go back to dark days of the past. No longer are we the complacent and subjugated masses. This is our chance as a species to begin healing the wounds and progressing forward to a more perfect union. Stand up! Stand up and don’t let this moment ever slip away.

  2. says

    This campaign brought out the best and the worst in Americans and I’m glad it did. I’ve always known about the worst, it’s been exhibited thousands of times. It’s demonstrated everytime there is grave injustice and no one seems to notice or care unless they are directly impacted. But the best is only exhibited occasionally and Tuesday was one of those rare occasions. I am not Michelle Obama, so I can say for the first time in my life I’m proud to be an American.

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