Obama inauguration beyond dreams of civil rights generation

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 16, 2009 

WASHINGTON — For Palmira Braswell, President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration is a salve that will soothe a lifetime of racial wounds.

On that day, the 80-year-old former teacher will sit alone in her living room, thinking about how she was forced to hand her students torn and soiled books — learning material deemed fit only for "colored" children in Macon's segregated school system.

She'll think about stepping off the sidewalk onto the street to let whites half her age pass.

She'll think about those old hurts and hundreds more.

And she'll weep with joy over a moment she dared not dream would ever come to pass.

"I will be right here," she said in a telephone interview from her home. "My food will have been cooked and I hope I am here and can sit and cry and rejoice. And that's it. Just enjoy the moment and pray. If I just want to say hallelujah and yell, I can do it in my own home."

She, like many other members of the civil rights generation living in Georgia, views Obama's inauguration as a watershed moment akin to the 1963 march on Washington. They are the generation that witnessed firsthand the bloody and violent racial history Billie Holiday sang of in "Strange Fruit." They are also the generation that bore witness as their comrades and, later, their children went on to serve on the city council, state and federal offices.

Though they pushed their children to achieve, the presidency remained a dream deferred.

"For so many years we felt this was an impossible dream," Braswell said. "To have a president of the United States, I don't know if we reached that high in our thinking. It's a dream I never thought would happen. But sometimes we can sell ourselves short in our dreams."

"Isn't it something that it's Martin's birthday and it's the inauguration? There's a plan, isn't it?" she said. "To have that beautiful young man say, 'I hear what you're saying and understand the hearts of all people, not just white and black?' I'm so glad I'm living during this period."

Obama's election suggests there is a shift afoot in American culture, said Mark Anthony Neal, an African-American studies professor at Duke University and the author of several books, including "New Black Man: Rethinking Black Masculinity."

Just as 20 years before the March on Washington it would have been impossible to think that thousands would show such public concern for the plight of black Americans, members of the civil rights generation say they are heartened at the idea that a multiracial crowd of millions will gather in Washington to bear witness to the swearing in of the nation's first black president.

"If you go back and think about the time when the Voting Rights Act was passed, you had a generation of folks who never thought they would be able to vote for anyone that looks like them on any level," Neal said. "For that generation, the idea that 40 years later they could vote for an African American man for the highest office in the country, momentous does not describe what that means."

In many ways, Obama's inauguration symbolizes a changing of the guard from the civil rights era leaders who have long held prominent local and national positions to the younger beneficiaries of those social struggles.

Voters born after the civil rights movement were pivotal to Obama's electoral victory and are expected to converge on the National Mall in large numbers to witness the swearing in. Prize-winning poet Elizabeth Alexander, who attended the March on Washington as an infant, will read her work at the inauguration.

"I was born in the '60s and I've taught civil rights history long enough to know how important it is," said Anita Ponder, a former Macon city council member and director of education at the Tubman African American Museum. "But with Obama's election I can feel some substance to the word 'hope'.

"To me change was embodied in the fact that he was elected in an America that still has huge issues when it comes to racial and tolerance issues," she said. "Nevertheless, there were enough people to say it's time for a change. It gives me new stories to tell when children come through."

However, even among those fighting for change there is often resistance to the shape it takes, Gwen Ifill writes in her new book, "Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama." Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights leader who marched next to Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1963 March on Washington, switched from Hillary Clinton to Obama during the primary season in part because he feared ending up on the wrong side of history.

"I saw it in Atlanta with some of the old guard, towards some of the young people, you hear, 'They haven't paid their dues,' 'It's not their time, they need to get in line,'" Lewis was quoted as saying in Ifill's book. "I think some of the old-line black leaders during the '60s, the late '50s and the '60s, wanted us to stay in our places, not get out of line, that we were going too fast, that we were pushing too fast. And they didn't understand this new, young degree of militancy."

As members of the civil rights generation prepare to pass the torch on to the emerging crop of young leaders inspired by Obama's success, the older guard cautions against presuming the battle for racial equality has been completely won.

"The election of Barack Obama is a landmark event in the history of the modern civil rights movement," said Rudolph Byrd, professor of American studies at Emory University in Atlanta. "It signals that the country has made significant progress. I stress progress because there is work to be done. American democracy is a project in progress."

Henry Ficklin, a former civil rights activist and Macon city councilman who currently teaches at Southwest High School, sees an everyday reminder of both the promise and the challenges the so-called "Obama generation" faces.

"Race relations have not been resolved," Ficklin said. "If that was true, that would have been resolved with the election of (former Virginia governor) Douglas Wilder and many of our country's black mayors. The problems are in the hearts of men."

However, just as the march on Washington galvanized a generation of black leaders, Obama's inauguration is a seminal moment that will forever redefine how young African Americans see themselves, Ficklin said.

"The fact that we have an African American going into the highest office in this land and, perhaps, the most powerful office in the world removes all of the excuses young minorities used to have and articulate as reasons for not being able to succeed in this country," Ficklin said. "Here is a young man who was the product of a broken family. He's had some ups and downs and has had some battles that permeate poor communities. He has persevered and succeeded. It speaks to what can be achieved."

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