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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Obama Fulfills Civil-Rights Generation’s Aspirations


Jan. 20 (Bloomberg) -- Ten-year-old Nigel Sanders summed up the mood of black Americans when Barack Obama attended services at Washington’s Nineteenth Street Baptist Church last Sunday. “Martin Luther King walked so Barack Obama could run,” Sanders said to a 170-year-old congregation where slaves once worshipped.

The former Illinois senator made history today by taking the oath of office as the first black U.S. president, fulfilling the hopes of generations that lived through decades of struggle for civil rights.

Iva McCants, 59, a retired teacher and administrator from Jackson, Mississippi, splurged for the trip to Washington before diabetic retinopathy robs her of her sight.

“It’s just a great occasion and I wanted to be here,” she said. “I’m losing my vision, so this might be one of the last important things I can see.”

Still, Obama’s inauguration may have its biggest impact on children who will grow up in a country where minority aspirations for high office don’t seem beyond reach. “For a 5- year-old, this will be what they know -- they will know it’s possible,” said Bread Montgomery, 33, a Philadelphia clothing designer. “They won’t question it.”

Obama, the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas, largely played down the racial significance of his two-year quest for the White House through a series of primaries, caucuses and general election campaigns shadowed by questions about whether the U.S. would back a minority president.

‘Lash of the Whip’

In his inaugural address today, Obama paid homage to the struggles of the nation’s forbears, including those who “endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.â€

“The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness,â€

The calendar provided reminders of Obama’s place in civil- rights history: Today’s inauguration came one day after the annual U.S. federal holiday commemorating King, and Obama accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination last August on the 45th anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Echoes of King

Obama opened the inaugural festivities two days ago by speaking from the Lincoln Memorial where King gave the 1963 address.

“Directly in front of us is a pool that still reflects the dream of a King, and the glory of a people who marched and bled so that their children might be judged by their character’s content,â€

As many as 2 million people attended today’s events. The excitement extended beyond the marble buildings and monuments of the downtown federal enclave, reaching into poorer areas of a majority-black city that has no voting representation in Congress.

“You couldn’t overestimate the significance, the importance and the excitement in the African-American community,” said Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty, who is counting on Obama to support the District of Columbia’s push for a vote in the House of Representatives.

Change in D.C.

“You will see a change in the federal government’s relationship with Washington residents,” said Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s longtime friend who will be a top White House adviser.

One of Obama’s first public outings after moving his family to Washington earlier this month was a visit with Fenty to Ben’s Chili Bowl, a 51-year-old hot dog restaurant in the historically black U Street neighborhood, the site of riots after King’s 1968 assassination.

Obama, who spent most of the last two decades on Chicago’s predominately black South Side, is aware of the symbolism attached to his campaign.

“You can think about what Washington, D.C., was like 50 years ago or 60 years ago, and the notion that I now will be standing there and sworn in as the 44th president, I think is something that hopefully our children take for granted,” he said in an interview with CNN last week. “But our grandparents, I think, are still stunned by it and it’s a remarkable moment.”

Some Died

John Seigenthaler, 81, former publisher of Nashville’s Tennessean newspaper who was a Justice Department negotiator in Alabama during the 1960s civil-rights protests, said excitement about Obama’s election shouldn’t erase the memory that many people fought and some died in the battle for equal rights. “That makes this election all the more thrilling, but it also might make it too easy to forget,” he said.

Today’s inauguration is “one for the history books,” like Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Thomas Edison’s invention of the light bulb, or King’s March on Washington, historian Douglas Brinkley said.

“But because of that, and because you’ll have the whole world watching and it’s our first global president, we have to restrain ourselves a little bit from making it seem like the whole world is crumbling and the savior is coming in from left field,” Brinkley said.

Former U.S. Representative Albert Wynn, who represented a district in Washington’s Maryland suburbs, said that while recognizing the importance of Obama’s victory, people must realize that change won’t be immediate.

‘Not Overnight’

“It’s a very important symbol, but it is just that -- it’s a symbol,” Wynn said. “Does this mean there’s going to be automatic economic turnaround in poor communities, either inside the Beltway or in certain sections of the District of Columbia? Well, not overnight.”

Ben Jealous, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the civil rights group will celebrate Obama without letting the new president forget issues important to U.S. blacks.

“The reality is that it’s still easier in this country for a white man with a criminal record to get a job than a black man without a criminal record,” Jealous said in an interview.

“Our responsibility is to put as much pressure on him and his administration as we have on everyone before,” Jealous said. “If we don’t let the brother know when he’s not living up to people’s expectations, he may only have four years.”

Excitement was high enough that Isoline McDonald, a 50- year-old nurse from Silver Spring, Maryland, said she planned to head for the inaugural ceremony at 5 a.m. to get a good view, even with forecasts of sub-freezing temperatures.

“It’s inspiring to know that he can win,” said McDonald, a mother of five. “It will inspire a lot of black children.”

Obama’s own children expect big things. Upon learning that a new president gives an inaugural speech, Obama told CNN in an interview that 10-year-old Malia Obama said: “First African- American president -- better be good.”
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