Columnists Reflect on King and Obama
Bob Herbert: And so it has happened, this very strange convergence. The holiday celebrating the birth of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. became, in the midnight hour, the day that America inaugurates its first black president. It’s a day on which smiles will give way to tears and then return quickly to smiles again, a day of celebration and reflection. Dr. King would have been 80 years old now. He came to national prominence not trying to elect an African-American president, but just trying to get us past the depraved practice of blacks being forced to endure the humiliation of standing up and giving their seat on a bus to a white person, some man or woman or child. Get up, girl. Get up, boy. Dr. King was just 26 at the time, a national treasure in a stylish, broad-brimmed hat. He was only 39 when he was killed, eight years younger than Mr. Obama is now. There are so many, like Dr. King, who I wish could have stayed around to see this day. Some were famous. Most were not.
Eugene Robinson: Rarely has a new presidency been greeted with such a consensus of goodwill — and rarely has a new president so needed it. The importance of Obama’s mind-blowing historical breakthrough can hardly be overstated. Slavery vexed the Founding Fathers; if not for Lincoln’s iron determination, it would have ripped the nation apart. For nearly a century after African Americans were freed from bondage, American society still relegated us to a corner reserved for second-class citizens. Having a black man as president does not magically eliminate racial disparities in income or wealth; it does not fix inner-city schools, repair crumbling neighborhoods or heal dysfunctional families. Psychologically, though, it changes everything.
Our mental furniture is being rearranged. The advent of Obama’s presidency brings the African American experience to center stage but does so in a way that allows society to congratulate itself on having come so far. The implications for black Americans are even more profound, because seeing Obama in the White House obliterates any logic behind self-imposed limits on imagination and ambition.
Stanley Crouch: Today, the day before his famous dream will be realized, we celebrate the birth of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Tomorrow, Barack Obama, the Hawaiian half-caste who is one of the country’s few true African-Americans, will be sworn in as the 44th President on a day that will be as cold as molasses in January. In a most dramatically symbolic way, the country will have become “free at last.” That dream was first made a national and international vision in the same Washington, D.C. where the inauguration will be held. It was the summer of 1963 and many thousands had come to gather in the country’s capital to protest how far removed the Negro was from what were supposed to be constitutional rights that transcended all distinctions of color, class, religion and sex.
It now seems so long ago that we as a nation had accepted the idea that the Constitution did not apply below the Mason-Dixon line. In brief, the redneck South had lost the shooting conflict of the Civil War, but had won the policy fight that allowed it to create a lower and separate nation of its own laws right inside of the United States. How lunatic was that? We must face our past in order to better understand just what this nation has become. We do ourselves a great disservice if we do not recognize what a heroic effort was necessary to liberate us from that horrific shadow and all of the superstitions that underlay the homicide, disregard and contempt used against black people and any whites who believed in human equality or equal respect under the law.
Juan Williams: If his presidency is to represent the full power of the idea that black Americans are just like everyone else — fully human and fully capable of intellect, courage and patriotism — then Barack Obama has to be subject to the same rough and tumble of political criticism experienced by his predecessors. To treat the first black president as if he is a fragile flower is certain to hobble him. It is also to waste a tremendous opportunity for improving race relations by doing away with stereotypes and seeing the potential in all Americans.
Yet there is fear, especially among black people, that criticism of him or any of his failures might be twisted into evidence that people of color cannot effectively lead. That amounts to wasting time and energy reacting to hateful stereotypes. It also leads to treating all criticism of Mr. Obama, whether legitimate, wrong-headed or even mean-spirited, as racist. This is patronizing. Worse, it carries an implicit presumption of inferiority. Every American president must be held to the highest standard. No president of any color should be given a free pass for screw-ups, lies or failure to keep a promise.
Clarence Page: Once the inaugural party lights have faded, everyone should know that President Obama becomes just another chief executive who must sink or swim on his ability to handle the job. He seemed to say as much in the subtle appeal for help that he included in his inaugural address, even as he tried to keep hopes aloft. “What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility,” he said, “a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.” With that he raises a new question: It is not only whether Obama will live up to our expectations that matters, but also whether we will live up to his.
Thomas Sowell: Those who doubted that a black man could be elected to the highest office in the land no longer have a leg to stand on. That can be a force for good, when young blacks can no longer be told that there is no point in their trying to get ahead in this society because “the man” is going to stop them. In another sense, the Obama presidency may not be nearly as big a change in the country as some might think. Colin Powell could probably have been elected eight years ago. But you don’t know it can happen until it happens.
No doubt the race-hustling industry will continue, and no doubt their chief victims will be blacks, especially young blacks, who buy the paralyzing picture of victimhood and the counterproductive resentments which sap energies that could be better used to improve their own lives. Now that we have the first black President of the United States, maybe we can move ahead to the time when we can forget about “the first” whatever to do what. There is too much serious work to do to spend more time on that.