Forgive a bit of stunned reverie and temporary madness while taking in this moment. It was so remarkable in the history of this country that hopefully you can forgive a few befuddled neurons processing the images with an outdated book.
This meeting was, of course, for President-elect Barack Obama, organized ostensibly by President Bush, so that the past and present executives of 1600 Pennsylvania could impart wisdom to its future resident. In an accomplishment deeply rooted in the breadth, depth and beauty of the American character, Obama deserves to be in that group, perhaps more than anyone else. It was his meeting.
It is Martin Luther King Day again. Can anyone say with a straight face that this year’s celebration doesn’t mean immeasurably more?
We do love getting a day off from work, news networks play segments of various lengths from the “I Have a Dream” speech depending on the slowness of the news cycle and we all shuffle through a modicum of remembrance. But this year has to be different. What does it mean when Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 80th birthday falls five days before the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States?
Obama and his campaign never shied away from King’s legacy, but they correctly refrained from drawing a straight line through history connecting the most famous African-American leader in American history to his heir apparent. To do so would marginalize the millions of righteous people and actions that continued the inexorable, if rocky, march up to King’s mountaintop on the horizon.
Obama’s acceptance speech during the Democratic National Convention in Denver, delivered 45 years to the day after King’s most famous proclamation on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., paid homage in its spirit rather than in excessive overt praise to the Baptist preacher from Atlanta. Rather than a continuation of King’s legacy, however that immeasurable accomplishment can be codified, Obama’s achievements are much more the pioneering steps of a new legacy made possible by the sacrifices that piece by piece, march by march, bus seat by bus seat, jailed night after jailed night offered hope of a better day ahead when the disenfranchised of a country built on the backs of the disenfranchised could at least and at last take equal footing at the starting line. As much as I admire King as a man of vision and prescience, I have to think he never could in his heart of hearts imagine an African-American president in the lifetime of his generation.
With President-elect Obama’s inauguration mere days away, I wonder, then, what King would have thought of this year, this election and the first moment when Obama sits behind the Resolute desk in the Oval Office. Remember that the needs and desires of 1968 were pragmatic ones – King was murdered trying to mediate a sanitation workers’ strike over basic fairness in pay – and the dream of a black chief executive must have seemed at some level fanciful compared to the debilitating, daily issues that faced all citizens haunted by the specter of fire hose hatred and closet racism.
After all, Lyndon Johnson had just appointed the first African American to a cabinet-level post in 1966, Robert C. Weaver as the first Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. To those who have imagined, myself included, an image of Martin Luther King looking forward and seeing Jan. 20, 2009 without knowing the date, without knowing Obama, but trusting that our country would get there someday soon I think underestimate what this moment means.
On Election Day, when Barack Obama gave his victory speech from Grant Park in Chicago, cameras found the Reverend Jesse Jackson with tears streaming down his face. Jackson is King’s contemporary and has run for president himself, and in him we may see the weight of this moment from someone who had lived a lifetime of struggle.
King was fond of saying that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. He prepared all those who believed for a difficult journey and did not know how long that arc would be, and were he here with us today, standing in that park on an unusually warm night in Chicago, watching the most unusual of spectacles as this country rose above its past and bent sharply towards the best angels of its true and good nature, he would cry and cheer with equal parts surprise and pride as many of us did at the skinny black kid with big ears who just happens to be the President of the United States.