In his 1989 book, When Hell Froze Over: The Untold Story of Doug Wilder: A Black Politician’s Rise to Power in the South, Dwayne Yancey tells the story of Douglas Wilder’s improbable, upstart, grassroots campaign for Virginia Lieutenant Governor in the 1980’s, which Wilder, astonishingly, won. Wilder became the first black politician elected to statewide office in the South since Reconstruction, and later became the nation’s first elected black governor. His victories in both these races astounded observers, fueled by the phrase “Doug Wilder will win election in Virginia when Hell freezes over”. Well, Hell did, indeed, freeze over.
As the only child of a black US Army officer and a Thai mother, Eldrick Woods began playing golf at the amazing age of two. Having been given the nickname “Tiger” by a Vietnamese friend of his father, Woods is an amalgam of races and nationalities, considering himself to be a “Cablinasian” (Caucasian, Black, American-Indian, and Asian), a term he coined himself. Against considerable odds, and against conventional wisdom and societal norms, Woods combined his unique athletic ability, an unrelenting work ethic, and a mental discipline honed by his practice of Buddhism to rise and become the world’s greatest golfer and an international phenomenon.
Wilder and Woods, for all their personal triumphs, are also symbolically significant for all of us. Their victories rise above racial, historical, social, and economic stereotypes. Their victories challenge powerful and historic institutions that are designed to defeat them, to “keep them in their place”. Like Muhammad Ali, they told us they would win, we didn’t believe them, and they won anyway.
As a proud Irish-American who has dedicated much of his life to the cause of civil rights, I couldn’t help but think of Doug Wilder and Tiger Woods and Muhammad Ali this past weekend. Padraig Harrington, the proud, gregarious and steely-eyed Irish Catholic golfer from Ballyroan, son of an Irish police officer, carried the weight of his people and history on his back as he captured the august British Open. I couldn’t help but think, at the moment of Harrington’s victory putt, of the elderly Irish patriot, watching the event on television in a pub, seeing the putt fall and raising his glass to Padraig, while singin’ a rebel song in reply.
As the Masters is to African-Americans and to Tiger Woods, the British Open is to the Irish and Padraig Harrington. The Masters and the British Open– bastions of Old World power and stuffy elitism, emblematic of historic oppression and the oppressors, forced to accept the unacceptable because of their ability and strength. The historic ironies of Woods’ victories in the Masters and Harrington’s victory in The Open edify us all, and affirm the better angels of our nature. They show that, in the best of worlds, right makes might and justice prevails.
Douglas Wilder, Tiger Woods, Muhammad Ali, Padraig Harrington. I’m damn glad I was there when Hell froze over.