Written in response to the Inauguration of President Barack Obama
January 22, 2013
Leslie Pollard, Ph.D., D.Min., MBA
President, Oakwood University
Huntsville, AL 35896
“Well, I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free!”
I do not know why the words of Lee Greenwood’s moving anthem to being an American hit me the way they did, but tears welled up in my eyes as five of my closest friends, walked up Capitol Avenue on our way to the swearing in ceremony that cold Washington morning. But there was something special about this 2012 ceremony. I could not attend the 2008 Inauguration, so I felt that I was playing catch up.
As I arrive, I am reliving August 28, 1963, as I stand on the marbled steps of the Lincoln Monument, where a southern preacher brought to the world 17 minutes of pure eloquence.
It was 17 minutes of melody mingled with melancholy; It was 17 minutes that cheered and inspired 200,000 dream catchers who marched to Washington D.C because they held the audacious belief that human dignity, human equality, and basic civility was the right of every citizen!!!
It only took 17 minutes for a 33 year-old dream caster’s rhetorical skill to melt a glacier of opposition . . .
It took him 17 minutes to match each metaphor to a country’s collective imagination. Our young scholar preacher standing on the steps of the Lincoln memorial–beneath the majestic gaze of America’s great liberator, brought the proverbial house down.
Dr. Martin Luther King provided the defining moment of America’s Civil Right’s movement. That day, 200,000 women and men descended on Washington, DC to cash a check drawn against an original promissory note of justice written 187 years earlier–”We hold these truths to be self-evident, that God has created all men equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
On that humid August day of almost a half-century ago, during a heated Washington summer, a summer sweltering in the heat of oppression–the young dream caster declared “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
That 17 minutes demonstrated such mastery and magic that in 1999, 137 Scholars of Public Address designated the 17 minute piece as the single greatest political speech of the 20th century–greater than Kennedy’s “Ask not” speech — greater than Churchill’s “Never Give Up” speech — greater than Roosevelt’s “Nothing to Fear” speech.
But remember that everyone did not celebrate. In the halls of America’s FBI, two days after King delivered “I Have a Dream,” according to the US Freedom of Information act, Agent William C. Sullivan, the head of CO-IN-TELPRO, wrote a memo about King’s growing influence:
“In the light of King’s powerful demagogic speech yesterday he stands head and shoulders above all other Negro leaders put together when it comes to influencing great masses of Negroes. We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation . . .”
They were right. Dr. King was dangerous, because “truth” is dangerous. Dr. King was dangerous because right is dangerous. Dr. King was dangerous because justice is dangerous. Dr. King was dangerous because God is dangerous.
What the FBI did not know is that Dr. King was not defenseless–he was armed with his dream!!!
Lesson 1 for University students: Having a dream makes you dangerous!
There will always be haters, like the biblical brothers of Joseph, who when they heard the dream from the lips of the 17 year-old dream master, said “Come now . . . let us slay [the dreamer] . . . and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”
Lesson 2 from the life of Dr. King, “People can kill the dreamer, but they cannot kill the dream . . .”
Now my mind is on fast forward mode, to 45 years from 1963 to 2008. Come with me to November 4, 2008 and there he is–standing on a stage in Grant Park, not a young preacher from Montgomery, but this time, a slender, young Senator standing in Chicago, his ebony hued wife, and two lovely daughters. They emerge from the shadows of Chicago, at 11:00 Eastern Standard Time, to the joy of many and the dismay of some. He, a child of African descent, is declared to be President of the United States of America. This historic moment in 2008 broke open the doors of opportunity for any person, from any background, to serve in the highest office in the United States.
Four years later, Prudence and I, along with our friends, and 800,000 other celebrants and well wishers made the pilgrimage to the District of Columbia to witness the swearing in ceremony of President Barak Obama in Washington, DC. We, like all the others, stood in the cold, warmed ourselves with silly chants, and jumping jacks, and countdowns, and an array of other delightful and silly and gleeful distractions.
After all of the ceremonial introductions of dignitaries–President and Mrs. Carter, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Rahm Emmanuel, Supreme Court Justices and many more–out comes the First Family. First the young ladies, Sasha and Malia enter to adoring applause. Michelle enters, new “do” and all. Her dress is stunning, but more important is the subliminal messaging grounded in a two-parent, highly functional, African-American family. The Bibles appear–a symbol of the sacred–one owned by Abraham Lincoln and the other owned by Dr. Martin Luther King. These two Bibles symbolize two great Americans, whose work is forever etched in the marble of American memory.
Lincoln who set blacks free legally, King who set blacks free mentally;
Lincoln, who united a nation, King, who redeemed a nation;
Lincoln, who ended a violent war founded on injustice, King, who launched a non-violent war grounded in justice; Lincoln, who emancipated a nation,King who elevated a nation
President Obama on January 21, 2013 took the oath of office 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
But 150 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and after the election of the first African-American President, the stakes have never been higher for young people of color. For instance, we learn from the Center for American Progress that 150 years later people of color make up about 30 percent of the United States’ population, but they account for 60 percent of those imprisoned.
150 years later, 1 in every 15 African American men and 1 in every 36 Hispanic men are incarcerated in comparison to 1 in every 106 white men.
150 years later 1 in 3 black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime.
150 years later, the Department of Justice found that blacks and Hispanics were approximately three times more likely to be searched during a traffic stop than white motorists.
150 years later, African Americans were twice as likely to be arrested and almost four times as likely to experience the use of force during encounters with the police.
150 years later African Americans make up two-fifths and Hispanics one-fifth of confined youth today.
150 years later African American youth have higher rates of juvenile incarceration and are more likely to be sentenced to adult prison.
150 years later, African American women are three times more likely than white women to be incarcerated, while Hispanic women are 69 percent more likely than white women to be incarcerated.
150 years later, we still have to teach young black males to keep both hands on the steering wheel, if stopped by the police!
President Obama has been elected and much has changed. And much has not! Contrary to the rabid optimism of many and the rancid pessimism of others, America is anything but post-racial. But it is still a place where if you work hard, and fight the right fight, the fight for excellence, the opportunities are many! Pat Riley, General Manager of the Miami Heat is quoted to say, “Excellence is the gradual result of always striving to do better.” Excellence is not perfection! But it is always striving!
And maybe that is the message of the Obama reelection.
I left with the unassailable certainty that the excellence attained by the Obama’s is its own reward. “I’m glad to be an American, where at least I know I’m free!” I still cannot shake the sentiments of the song. It reminds me that I have the freedom to fight the right fight. Here in America, the opportunities are available for someone of us, someone we least suspected, that someone can get there. And I join Obama in the restless determination that by the grace of God, I will not sleep until that someone becomes everyone!
Send me your comments at Presidentsoffice@oakwood.edu .