A day comes that many didn't think they'd live to see

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 6, 2009 

WASHINGTON — For Josie Johnson, history will come full circle when she stands in the crowd at the foot of the U.S. Capitol and sees Barack Obama sworn in as the 44th president of the United States.

Johnson, a retired University of Minnesota professor, was in another crowd on Washington's National Mall on a sweltering day in August 1963, mesmerized by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech about dreaming that someday his children would be judged by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin.

"I keep thinking that Obama was the child he was talking about, that America and the world would see his character," said Johnson, who's 77. "Never in my life did I think I would see this day. To see Martin Luther King and now Barack Obama, it's a full circle, a wonderful complete, full circle. I pinch myself once a day now."

Obama's election and his coming inauguration have triggered euphoria, disbelief, a restoration of faith in an American system that hasn't always been worthy of it, a feeling that all things are possible no matter who, or what, you are.

It's been two months since Obama became the first African-American to be elected president, but the emotions among African-Americans, especially the elderly, are as vivid and fresh as if it were still Nov. 4 with the results from California just coming in.

Jan. 20 will be just as emotional — perhaps more so — when Obama puts his hand on a Bible, states his full name and takes the oath of office before what's expected to be the largest Inauguration Day crowd in history.

"This is an incredible public racial moment, a positive one," said Katheryn Russell-Brown, the director of the University of Florida's Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations. "And it's wonderful to see this through the eyes of citizens older than me, through my parents. There was no reason for them to imagine something like this in their lifetime."

Ernie Green couldn't imagine there being an African-American president as he grew up in Little Rock, Ark., where he and eight other African-American students were taunted by whites and required protection by armed National Guardsmen as they integrated Little Rock Central High School in 1957.

Green and other members of the Little Rock Nine will attend Obama's swearing-in ceremony as guests of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies. They'll join the surviving Tuskegee Airmen, the famed African-American aviators of World War II, as special inaugural guests.

"I didn't think it would happen in my lifetime," said Green, 67, who lives in suburban Washington. "To me, personally, it makes me feel that the choice I made in Little Rock 51 years ago came to fruition."

Roscoe Brown, a Tuskegee Airman who accepted the Congressional Gold Medal from President George W. Bush last year on behalf of his fellow airmen, figured that there'd be an African-American president, but not until 2012. He's happy that the day came sooner rather than later.

"It's a vindication about beating segregation," said Brown, 86, who grew up in segregated Washington. "It's a good time, like the end of the Civil War."

Rep. James Clyburn, a son of segregated South Carolina, also speaks of vindication when he talks about Obama's victory and what it symbolizes. Clyburn, a Democrat, said he'd cried with his children and grandchildren on Election Night, three generations of one African-American family shedding tears for different reasons.

Clyburn said his were tears of "vindication for all those who kept faith in the American system." The tears streaming down the faces of his family, he said, were "tears of hope."

"Hope for a future they really thought would never come to be, as many times as I told them they could grow up to be whatever they wanted to be," Clyburn recalled. "Quite frankly, they didn't believe it, and I didn't believe it when I was telling them."

Like many older African-Americans, suburban Washington resident John Leeke began the political season doubting that enough whites could shed the age-old shackles of racism and vote for a black or biracial person to occupy the highest office in the land.

As the campaign progressed, however, and Obama's primary victories mounted, Leeke grew more confident that some attitudes had changed and Obama could pull it off.

Still, he rarely talked about it because he couldn't shake a nagging feeling that despite Obama's imposing campaign war chest, formidable organization and sizable lead over Republican presidential candidate John McCain, something would go wrong and white voters would reject him.

"Too many times we have trusted people to do the right thing and they'll turn around and do things that truly are not indicative of doing the right thing," he said. "Given that, I'm thrilled, pleased, excited and haven't settled down since it was a done deal."

Like Leeke, retired professor Johnson didn't say much to her family and friends about Obama's chances during the campaign, chalking it up to superstition. She knew in her heart that Obama would win, but she nonetheless was pleasantly surprised when he did.

"I didn't believe it," she said. "It restores my faith in what I believe is possible. It demonstrates that with hard work, discipline, it can happen."

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