American milestone: Obama inauguration is a moment of celebration, reflection
Thousands gather, bearing witness to America’s historic step toward racial equality.
At noon on Tuesday, history will be made on the steps of the US Capitol. Barack Hussein Obama will take the oath of office, placing his left hand on the Bible that Abraham Lincoln used when he took the same oath in 1861.Skip to next paragraph
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Back then, the nation was descending into civil war over slavery. Today, the new president faces economic challenges unmatched in generations, two wars abroad, and the continuing threat of terrorism at home. The difficult business of governing at a time of crisis will begin nearly from the moment President-elect Obama utters the words “so help me God.” His inauguration speech, delivered right after the oath, will reportedly focus on two themes: responsibility and restoring public confidence.
But the special significance of Obama’s inauguration, as America’s first black president, will also be a moment for reflection and celebration. On a long weekend already commemorating the 80th birthday of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., Americans of all colors have converged on the nation’s capital in unprecedented numbers to bear witness to this latest step in the struggle toward racial equality.
Though not descended from slaves, President-elect Obama carries with him the special hopes and pride of those who are. Two and a half months after Mr. Obama’s decisive electoral victory, many African-Americans are still processing a moment they thought they’d never see.
Ronald Walters, a political scientist who worked on civil rights leader Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns, says that when Mr. Jackson’s 1988 campaign folded, he concluded that the election of an African American would not happen in his lifetime.
“And then it happens,” says Mr. Walters, director of the African American Leadership Center at the University of Maryland. But, he adds, “this is not about Barack Obama, in the final analysis. It’s about the American people and where we are in history at this given moment.”
Obama, alone among the candidates, recognized the profound desire for change early in the campaign. His opposition to the Iraq war from the start gave him that initial boost, and when the economy began to crater, that sealed it.
To elect a black man of exotic heritage and name, “things had to get this bad,” says Walters. “[Voters] privileged their own pain and anxiety over voting for an African-American. Obviously, they had to conclude that he was much better than [Republican nominee] John McCain and voted in that respect. After three debates, sizing him up, seeing his charisma, understanding his desire for change, they decided he was better.”
Still, the symbolism surrounding Obama’s rise to power is apparent at every turn. At the Democratic convention in August, Obama delivered his acceptance speech on the 45th anniversary of Dr. King’s immortal “I Have a Dream” speech. On Sunday, Obama spoke at the inaugural opening ceremonies from the Lincoln Memorial, the venue of King’s speech and also of famed black contralto Marian Anderson’s performance in 1939. She had been denied permission to sing at Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution.