This editorial appeared in The (Tacoma) News Tribune.
The symbolism is momentous.
When Barack Obama is sworn into office Tuesday on the steps of the Capitol, his hand will rest on Abraham Lincoln's Bible. Nearly two miles to the west, at the opposite end of the Mall, the Great Emancipator himself will witness the inauguration from within the Doric columns of the Lincoln Memorial.
Obama is a flesh-and-blood politician, not an icon carved in stone. Like any new president, he will enjoy a honeymoon of popularity that inevitably will give way to missteps, criticism and political opposition. He is no more guaranteed re-election, let alone greatness, than he is doomed to failure.
At another level, though, is the stark fact that Obama is the first African-American president elected in a country whose foundations are stained by the cruelties of slavery and Jim Crow. Viewed through the prism of the past, Obama's inauguration – if not the man himself – is as iconic as the monumental sculpture of the seated Lincoln.
Symbolically, the intermediary between Lincoln and Obama's inauguration is Martin Luther King Jr.
Like Obama, King was a flesh-and-blood man with flaws and critics. The simplifications of popular history have accomplished the seemingly impossible: exaggerating his role in the civil rights movement.
Many schoolchildren are given the impression that King singlehandedly ended enforced segregation in America. In fact, hundreds of others – including the likes of Thurgood Marshall, Ralph Abernathy and Lyndon Johnson – also played indispensable leadership roles.
Still, King was the movement's leader. His moral courage, electrifying oratory and assassination turned him into a national icon himself, like Lincoln and George Washington.
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