Obama's inauguration

January 20, 2009

When Abraham Lincoln got to the last line of what he apparently believed would be a few boilerplate comments memorializing the war dead at Gettysburg, he tentatively mentioned a "new birth of freedom." Sen. Charles Sumner of Boston picked up on the significance. The battle, he later remarked at the great president's funeral, was less important than the speech.

History's movements are both slow and fast. A half-century later, President Woodrow Wilson marked the Gettysburg anniversary by calling the Civil War a forgotten quarrel. Fifty thousand people showed up to commemorate the battle; the only blacks in attendance were those who had been employed to bolt together the bleachers.

Had The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. survived, he would have been 80 years old yesterday and conceivably could have lived to see not the fruition but the continuation of his dream. When Barack Obama is sworn in today as our 44th president, he will ride in on Lincoln's new birth of freedom, a phrase he has revived and applied to life in the 21st century. We can only guess what King's emotions might have been, and even those who do not believe in an afterlife must mightily wish for one today so the civil rights leader could witness the fruits of his labor.


In his time, King was fighting not for the presidency, but for a seat at a lunch counter. It is stunning to remember that, as a youngster, there were still places where Barack Obama would not have been permitted to use the same restroom as John McCain.

Here is where history moves with blinding, unimaginable speed. When Jesse Jackson ran for president just 20 years ago, race was heavy in the air. Some who might have agreed with his views voted against him because they feared it was a waste of a vote - a black man could not be elected. Others who might have agreed less with Jackson's views voted for him as a statement - it was time color play no part in politics.

The 2008 election was notable for how little race mattered. With the nation crumbling around us in many areas, this was a race not about color, but about competence, about leadership. Need strips away such luxuries as paying attention to color or social class. John Smith was viewed in some circles as unrefined trash. But in desperation, his fellows turned to him and he built Jamestown. Never mind his pedigree.

At this juncture, there is no telling what kind of president Obama will turn out to be. But he has already done more before assuming office than some presidents have done their entire terms. Change, hope and new freedom are not catchphrases, they have meaning. He has been a model for minorities, but not in the traditional sense. He arrives in office on his merits, nothing more. There are no quotas mandating one black president a century, no programs in place requiring an advantage today for disadvantages past. Barack Obama is president today because he earned it on a level playing field. That is a reality not to be ignored.

But it should also not be assumed that Obama's ascension is a final end to our unpleasant past. His election is no excuse to abandon vigilance, in practice or in our hearts, of creeping prejudices, be they against color, religion, nation of birth or economic standing. Just because you're leading in the third quarter is no reason to take it easy in the fourth.

What is striking about 2009 is an almost universal wish for Obama to succeed. Such was not the case with Clinton or Bush. Times were better then; we believed we could succeed even if our political adversaries did not. But if Obama fails, we all fail.

Truly, no person should have that kind of responsibility on his or her shoulders. But it is the case, and there is an element of beauty here. Barack Obama does not represent black America. He does not represent white America. He represents America. That might be the thing that King would have found so noteworthy about today.

Without Lincoln there might have been no King. Without King there might have been no Obama. It is our hope that Obama not only stabilizes a troubled nation, but leads to great leaders down the road, regardless of color. A new birth of freedom? In a sense, no. The freedom, or the possibilities of it, have always been with us. Our Founding Fathers saw to that. But it is up to their sons and the sons of others - in fact it is up to all of us - to see to it that those freedoms are ever realized.

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