Sunday, January 18, 2009

"We hold these truths to be self-evident,
that all men are created equal."
—Embracing and Celebrating Our Evolving American Spirit

During the mind-numbingly long presidential primary, I supported Senator Hillary Clinton. Like many of her supporters—most I would say, since we were, for the most part, a levelheaded constituency—rallied behind Senator Obama as soon as his efforts eclipsed those of Senator Clinton's in securing a confident hold on the nomination. My loyalty turned immediately, and vigorously, to Senator Obama, not because of any fickleness on my part. The important thing for all of us, supporters of Senator Obama and those of Senator Clinton, was to ensure the success of a Democrat in the November presidential election. Senator Obama's experience, commitment, character, and dedication inspired me, as those qualities endeared him to tens of millions of Americans.

In the final days before the election, I recall listening to a disturbing piece broadcast on NPR. The focus was obviously the role race would play in the election. As I listened to the interviewer speak with Tennessee residents, I remember feeling sick to my stomach. It was a combination of disgust and superiority, though, at the time, I knew my feelings of being better than the interviewees was entirely without merit. More than those superficial kinds of feelings, I was overwhelmed by a kind of tremendous heartache. The only reason the people being interviewed wouldn't even consider voting for Senator Obama was because of his race.

When I thought about Senator Obama, when I watched him in the televised debates even, the color of his skin was really the last thing I saw. I observed a gracious and articulate listener. Whereas his opponent rolled his eyes or made silly faces in response to Senator Obama's remarks and answers to a moderator's questions, Senator Obama never behaved in a manner that was disrespectful or defensive. I was struck by his confidence combined with a believable genuine humility.

As the election drew nearer, and apart from Senator Obama's obvious preparedness for the job of U.S. President (again, like many people, I knew that any weaknesses he might have in specific areas would be bolstered by the extraordinarily capable and experienced persons that would fill his cabinet), I have to confess that the idea of having an African-American president really thrilled me. I loved the idea of his young daughters occupying the same house where Caroline and John Kennedy spent a few years of their childhoods. Malia and Sasha will be a part of a legacy of young children growing up in the White House. They'll be remembered through history right along with the children of Teddy Roosevelt and, many decades later, President and Mrs. Kennedy's daughter and son. For some reason, imaging the two girls tromping through the Oval Office, as did John and Caroline, makes me very happy.

And, as Katharine Q. Seelye reminds us in the following article from Sunday's New York Times, President Obama, Mrs. Obama, Malia and Sasha, and Mrs. Robinson, the president's mother-in-law, will live in a house constructed by slaves and free blacks. President-elect Obama will take his oath-of-office, on the terrace of the U.S. Capitol Building, also constructed by black slave labor. He and his family will look out over millions of people standing on the National Mall where slaves were traded and sold.

I'm so proud and happy to live in a time when an African-American U.S. president—Barack Obama—will be the face of our nation to the world. I can't begin to imagine what it must be like for the surviving civil rights pioneers, and for the generations of African Americans who came after them and endured continued prejudice and discrimination, as they consider the trajectory of Senator Obama's journey over the past two years. I am certain, however, that it's the awe, pride, sense of accomplishment, I feel multiplied tenfold.

Discrimination, prejudice, bigotry haven't gone anywhere, but there can be no doubt that they will be radically undermined and diminshed on Tuesday afternoon when the President-elect becomes President Obama.

A Civil Rights Victory Party on the Mall

WASHINGTON — Joseph Burrucker, 82, was an air traffic controller with the Tuskegee Airmen in the 1940s. For the last few weeks, he has been working out at a gym near his home in Shaker Heights, Ohio, trying to get in shape so that when he comes to Barack Obama’s inauguration, he will be able to walk, albeit with a cane, to his seat.

The Tuskegee Airmen, the elite and segregated corps of black pilots and support crew from World War II, are among the few with inaugural tickets and seats. Their bravery during the war, on behalf of a country that actively discriminated against them, helped persuade President Harry S. Truman to desegregate the military; today, after being ignored for more than half a century, they are considered civil rights pioneers.

During the presidential campaign, Mr. Obama sparingly addressed matters of race. But as he prepares for his swearing-in on Tuesday, his inaugural is shaping up as a watershed event in the nation’s racial history — the culmination of the long struggle for civil rights.

Just over a generation ago, blacks in the South could not vote without restrictions. On Tuesday, more than 1.5 million people — among them about 200 former Tuskegee Airmen — are expected to pack the capital in honor of the nation’s first black president.

“It is a huge civil rights moment,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson. “Barack Obama has run the last lap of a 54-year race for civil rights.”

The inaugural program and surrounding events will feature some of the nation’s most prominent black artists and public figures, including Tiger Woods, Colin L. Powell, Aretha Franklin, Denzel Washington and Beyoncé Knowles.

Adding to the inauguration’s significance is that it comes just one day after the celebration of the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., when Mr. Obama will participate in a day of community service in the District of Columbia, a largely black city often ignored by official Washington. Mr. Obama has already signaled his interest in the community.

The Tuskegee Airmen make up just a piece of the inaugural tapestry. Seats were also offered to the Little Rock Nine, who faced violent mobs when they tried to enter an all-white school in 1957 after schools were supposed to be integrated.

“People have a sense of ownership,” said Representative John Lewis, Democrat of Georgia, a civil rights veteran. Mr. Lewis’s office received 14,000 requests for tickets, though he, like other members of the House, had just 193 to distribute. “People in the rural Deep South, in Greenwood, Miss., in Selma, they feel they helped bring this about, that they should be there.”

One of Mr. Obama’s guests, Dorothy Height, 96, will have a place of honor on the platform — in her wheelchair. Ms. Height, a longtime social activist, was accepted at Barnard College in 1929 but was turned away when she arrived because the school had met its quota of two black women.

“I never thought I would live to see this,” she said of the inauguration of a black president. “This is real recognition that civil rights was not just what Dr. King dreamed. But it took a lot of people a lot of work to make this happen, and they feel part of it.”

The inaugural itself will be at the Capitol, which was built by slaves who baked the bricks, sawed the timber and laid the stone for its foundation. When Mr. Obama delivers his Inaugural Address, he will be looking out across the National Mall, which was once a slave market, beyond the White House, also built by slaves, to the Lincoln Memorial, honoring the president who freed the slaves.

The outpouring is for a man who was rarely explicit about race in nearly two years on the campaign trail. He started out quoting Dr. King by name, but as his candidacy rolled toward the nomination, the words and cadences still reflected Dr. King, but the name vanished.

Mr. Obama made implicit references to race, as when he won the Iowa caucuses. “They said this day would never come,” he said in his victory speech.

It was only when confronted with controversy over his former pastor that Mr. Obama addressed the subject directly, with a well-received speech.

Ronald Walters, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, said that many people, not just the Obama team, wanted to mute the issue of race during the campaign.

“There was this silent understanding on the part of a lot of blacks that you couldn’t surface things in this campaign because they would redound to the enemies of Barack Obama and be used against him,” Mr. Walters said.

But now, he said, with Mr. Obama’s election, many African-Americans feel safer expressing their pride. “Some African-Americans feel we can put forward our claim on the campaign and it’s not going to hurt Barack,” he said. “The campaign is bowing to this because this is part of what made his election possible.”

Roger Wilkins, a former journalist and history professor, said that during the campaign, Mr. Obama “had the task of presenting himself to a country in which it’s clear that being black was not, at least initially, a terrific asset, and being a niche candidate, as Jackson and Sharpton were, wasn’t going to work.”

David Axelrod, a senior Obama adviser, said of the emerging civil rights aura at the inauguration: “We have not stressed the historic nature of this, but it is hard to miss. However people voted, whatever their background, I think there is a pervasive sense of pride among Americans about another barrier broken. It’s an affirmation that we live our ideals.”

Representative James E. Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat who grew up under Jim Crow laws, said he had more than 11,000 requests for his 193 tickets and he gave most of them to people who had fought for civil rights.

Mr. Clyburn reserved tickets for a constituent, Lillian Martin, 73, who was determined to go despite having terminal cancer and regardless of whether she had a ticket.

Mrs. Martin died a few days ago. But her husband plans to go in her honor. In an interview shortly before she died, Mrs. Martin said her cancer was “growing by leaps and bounds but it can’t overtake me — there’s too much I’m looking forward to with the inauguration of a black president.”