Today we inaugurate Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States. Let us celebrate the man, the occasion, the historical significance of an African American President. Let us note that it comes the day after we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Let us equally celebrate the greatness of America, the greatness which has made this celebration possible.
The greatness of our democracy, as laid out by our Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights is the ability of America to change, to grow, to evolve.
We are Americans, a people of all those who came before us and are stilling coming to the international beacon of freedom. America is not one people, one religion, one ethnicity, one class, one caste. We are all.
We have long since outgrown our WASP roots.
We will change with the current wave of immigrants from Latin America, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, India, Vietnam and Korea. They too will be assimilated into America, as have the prior waves of Irish, Italians, Poles, Slavs, Serbs, Jews, Armenians, Greeks, Scandinavians, Portuguese, Puerto Ricans, French Canadians, Chinese and Japanese, and even the former slaves and their descendants. Protestant, Catholic, Jew, Muslim, Hindu; it no longer matters as every immigrant adds to the American milieu.
We come from every country and region of the world. Every religion is represented in America, and we have added some of our own. California, Illinois, Massachusetts, and New York especially reflect the melting pot of America.
Obama’s election is an epochal event in American history. But so too was the election of Andrew Jackson, as the first Irish President, and JFK as the first Irish American President, Ronald Reagan as the first divorced President, Jimmy Carter as the first Southern Democrat since the New Deal, and Bill Clinton as the first non-veteran since World War II. Let us also acknowledge Obama as the first Democrat from the Frost Belt since JFK. Indeed, the election of every President and the peaceful transfer of power is an epochal event in the history of America and the World.
The elections of Oscar De Priest to Congress in 1928 and Edward Brooke to the Senate from Massachusetts in 1967 were the first post-Reconstruction Blacks elected to Congress. Both incidentally were Republicans.
We recognize the elections of Carl Stokes, Richard Hatcher, Coleman Young, and Thomas Bradley as mayors of big cities, Douglas Wilder as Governor of Virginia, and the appointment of Robert Weaver to the cabinet in 1966.
Let us also recognize Shirley Chisholm’s campaign as an African American Congresswoman for President in 1972, and the appointments of Louis Brandeis, Thurgood Marshall, and Sandra Day O’Conner to the Supreme Court.
Yes, I remember much of the recent history of racism in the United States. I remember watching a small black and white TV as President Eisenhower sent in the 101st Airborne to enforce integration at Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. I remember President Johnson pushing the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts through Congress.
I remember the civil rights riots of the late 1960’s that swept the nation.
I remember the assassinations of Dr. King and Medgar Evers, the 1963 16th Street Church Bombing killing 4 girls in Birmingham, Alabama, Bull Conner and his police dogs in Birmingham, the murders in Mississippi of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Learner, Julian Bond needing an opinion of the United States Supreme Court to claim his elected seat in the Georgia Legislature.
I also know many of the perpetrators of these hate crimes were ultimately brought to justice, even if decades later, in America.
I also remember over time the changes in Strom Thurmond and George Wallace as they evolved away from their earlier racism, reflecting the changes in the South.
I graduated from high school on January 28, 1964 and immediately matriculated at the University of San Francisco. I quickly became the photographer for the student newspaper, the Don. My first assignment was to photograph the civil rights demonstrators outside the car dealerships on Auto Road/Van Ness Avenue.
I remember too at the same time too that the department stores in San Francisco similarly employed non-whites in response to demonstrations.
Yes, even the progressive city of San Francisco had its vestiges of segregation.
As a Don, I learnt the lore of USF, especially the 1951 football team, christened the undefeated, untied, and uninvited team. USF played black athletes, including future Hall of Famer Ollie Matson. The southern bowls would not invite an integrated team in 1951. I also know that in 1955 and 1956 USF basketball teams, starting 3 blacks (Bill Russell, K.C. Jones, and Hal Perry) won 60 straight games and two national championships.
Texas Western under the recently deceased coach Don Haskins started 5 blacks in 1966, and defeated the seemingly invincible Kentucky Wildcats for the NCAA basketball title.
Other white pioneers who led the way in integrating sports include Branch Rickey and Paul “Bear’ Bryan.
Athletic pioneers included Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige, Althea Gibson and Arthus Ashe, Jesse Owens, Earl Lloyd, Doug Williams, JoeLouis and Muhammad Ali.
Yet, even while the political system, public accommodations, housing and schooling were segregated, Blacks were making progress in the greater American society. Lincoln Perry, Ethel Waters and Hattie McDaniel led the way to success in Hollywood, followed by Sidney Poitier, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. Bill Cosby opened up TV. Our musical culture included Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Paul Robeson, Eubie Blake, Cab Calloway, Marian Anderson, Lena Horne, Aretha Franklin and all of Motown, Chuck Berry, Harry Bellefonte, Lou Rawls, Noble Sissle, Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis, Moms Mabley, Bill Robinson, Pearl bailey, Diahann Carroll, Nina Simone, Dorothy Dandridge, Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles, James Brown, and Sammy Davis, Jr.
Bill Robinson, Josephine Baker, The Nicholas Brothers, and the Hines were acclaimed dancers.
Comedians, such as Richard Pryor, Dick Gregory, Nipsy Russell, and Redd Foxx paved the way for the current generation.
Let us also remember Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, Booker T Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rystin, James Baldwin, Marcus Garvey, Langston Hughes, Carl Rowan, Bessie Coleman, and Charles Drew..
Business entrepreneurs include Abraham Lincoln Lewis, John Johnson, and Madam C. J. Walker.
We have come a long way in a short historical frame from the Jim Crow Laws and King’s I Have a Dream Speech.
The same story will be written for Hispanics, Asians, Eastern Europeans, Middle Easterners as they fully assimilate into America.
Yes, today is a defining moment for the greatness of America.