Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Here To See It

The buzz is that somewhere near five billion people will watch the inauguration of Barack Obama today. Not all of them will be in Washington, obviously (although the police and Secret Service seem to be ready for them), but the whole world will be watching on TV or over the internet; gathered in small homes in the middle of the Kenyan savanna, in public places on Jumbotrons, including in downtown Miami at the Adrienne Arsht Center, and over the radio. I’ll be watching from my office, and like all historic events, this will be one of those good times that I will always remember where I was when I witnessed it, like the Apollo 11 moon landing in July 1969.

I hope that this will be a moment that we all share and remember. Regardless of our political beliefs, whether we voted for Barack Obama or someone else, we know that this is truly an event of history. If you’re old enough to remember past inaugurations that were considered historic, such as FDR’s in March 1933 or John F. Kennedy’s in 1961, you may not have thought — at the time — that they were meaningful; most thought they didn’t really mean that much at the moment except for great speeches of inspiration and bold new programs. But as we’re being told over and over again, nobody can deny that today we take the first step into a larger world.

Five billion people is a lot of people who will witness this day, including some people to whom today means a great deal, including the Little Rock Nine, the Tuskegee Airmen, and the next generation of African Americans to whom the torch is being passed. And there are some who won’t get to see it because they’re not here with us. As Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) noted last night on NBC News with Brian Williams, a lot of people who helped create this moment are no longer alive: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Coretta Scott King, A. Philip Randolph, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Shirley Chisholm, Medgar Evers, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Viola Liuzzo, and the many people who sacrificed their fortunes or their lives for trying to achieve the self-evident truth promised to them and to us.

And in a way I’m sorry that there are some people who are not around to see this only for the fact that it would teach them that they were so wrong to stand in the way of history; people like the late governors of states in the South like Orval Faubus of Arkansas and George Wallace of Alabama. Both Mr. Faubus and Mr. Wallace later changed their views and expressed regret for their actions, so this would be a time for them to see that the bitterness they engendered has turned to good. Some, however, like Lester Maddox and Jesse Helms, went to their graves without repentance, and today would be a good day to have them here to show them that despite their best efforts, nothing they did could stop this day from coming. In fact, they may have even hastened it by reminding us in stark terms how their racism and intolerance made us resolve to banish it and prove them so wrong.

So I am grateful to be here today to see this, not just for the moment of history, but for knowing how long it has taken us to get here and the responsibility that we now have to make it worth the effort, the sacrifice, and the hope.