This is a wonderful week to be an American. I am told that British TV will show five hours of the Obama Inauguration. The whole world is excited. A group for "foot soldiers" left Birmingham by bus for the Inauguration. One of the black women in that group was interviewed on NPR. "Why are you here?" someone asked her. "When I was a little girl I wanted to go to East Lake Park and see the ducks. But black people couldn't go to the white-only park. But my Daddy decided to take me anyway. We walked into the park and a policeman stopped him and beat him up for breaking the law. And so I am here today," she said, "not only for myself but for my Daddy and whole lot of other people."
Yesterday's Birmingham News had an inauguration edition for our new President. I write for the Commentary section of the paper from time to time. Here is my column from Sunday's paper.
Last spring I bumped into an old friend of mine in a restaurant as I traveled. I had not seen him in years. We talked for a while and finally turned to politics. "I'm worried about this election," he said. "Why?" "This black guy, he worries me. I hear that he may be a Muslim. He's got such a funny name." "George," I said, "I don't think you have to worry about that. He has been a member of a Church for years and is pretty active, I understand. Do you reckon some of your reservations come because he's black?" With a sheepish smile he said, "Well..."
This man has served on the Board of Trustees of a major University in the Deep South. In his day he has helped recruit a great many black athletes for his school. And I said, "Do you remember the first black student that came to our college and how he was treated? He went on to become Mayor of Charlotte. And do you remember how hard it was to welcome those first blacks onto the football field that first fall? Remember the catcalls and the boos from the stadium? Do you remember? You don't hear that now, but you do hear a whole lot of cheers for whoever wears the uniform. Maybe, just maybe Obama can do for us what the black athletes have done for schools all over this country."
We have come a long way from the back of the buses and the "White Only" drinking fountains and rest rooms. We have made enormous progress from those segregated "separate but equal" classrooms. Each victory was small and real and sure and hard. But Tuesday will be a new day for our country and for the world. President Barack Obama will stand on the shoulders of giants when he places his hand on that Lincoln Bible and accepts the challenge of this great land. He will be surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Sojourner Truth. Rosa Parks. Emmett Till. Jackie Robinson. Barbara Jordan. Sidney Portier. Muhammed Ali. Autherine Lucy. Fred Shuttlesworth. Ralph Abernathy. John Lewis. Bill Cosby. Marian Wright Edelman. Colin Powell. Cornell West. Condalessa Wright. Tiger Woods. Martin Luther King, Jr. But we must never forget all those others. Especially those four little girls that left us one sad September Sunday morning. Denise McNair. Cynthia Wesley. Carole Robertson. Addie Mae Collins.
All over the world people will huddle around radios and televisions on Tuesday. They will look in wonder on a nation that has fought many a stormy battle and yet has come to this good place. And the people of color everywhere will wonder if maybe they too may just have a chance to pursue their dreams.
Will Campbell, the renegade Baptist preacher, told of visiting the early civil rights leader, Kelly Miller Smith, Jr. on his deathbed. Rev. Smith had been a Nashville pastor that helped desegregate Nashville and went on to become a distinguished Dean and Professor. Lying there, he told Campbell, "All my efforts have produced only a cosmetic coating over an inveterate malignancy. They still don't respect us." I wish Reverend Smith had lived to see this Tuesday. Sometimes respect is a long time coming, but thank God it really does come."