This is quite a day in American history, one that will itself become a major part of history. Today the nation’s first African-American will be sworn in as President of the United States of America. A new era begins. Barack Obama replaces George W. Bush.
Perhaps it is very fitting that the new President takes office just one day after the country honored another African-American for beginning the journey that led to today. Although Martin Luther King, Jr., didn’t survive an assassination in 1968 to see today’s historic event, the event is possible because of his efforts that began in 1955, more than a half century ago.
I remember 1955 well. It was the year I graduated from high school in Portland. My parents had moved to St. Petersburg, Florida, the year before and within a couple of hours of my graduation, I was on a plane heading south to join them.
They had bought a home in Gulfport, a small bedroom community just outside St. Pete. I landed a job with a St. Pete newspaper and held it for a year when school once again beckoned me. My dad had become the manager of a building supply company so it was rather easy for me to get a summer job.
Meanwhile, events that because of my upbringing I totally didn’t understand erupted. Racial tensions, even small riots, broke out. I never was involved with any of those events as they were primarily in nearby Tampa in our area, but they flooded most of the south and some northern cities as well.
1955 was also the year that Baptist minister Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., began his assent as a civil rights leader. He was the leader in 1955 of the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, triggered by the refusal of Rosa Parks to move to the back of a bus after a white passenger boarded.
Dr. King became a prominent leader of the Civil Rights Movement and remains today as the symbol of that movement. He believed and led civil disobedience and other non-violent protests demanding equality of the races. In 1963 he led the famous March on Washington and delivered his now very famous “I have a dream” speech.
It was the beginning of law changes that were designed to give the equality Dr. King demanded.
Part of his “dream” was to see an African-American ascend to the Presidency. Today, that dream was realized.
That summer job my dad gave me also gave me my first interaction with a Black. I was assigned to work in the window department which prepared windows for customers. We installed and repaired the operating mechanisms as well. The windows on which I worked were jalousie windows, which had hand cranks and small glass slats. About half my work was in-house and the rest out in the field.
The first day I arrived to learn how to make/install/repair these windows, I met the first man of color I can remember meeting. O.B. was going to teach me how to be a window mechanic. We got along rather well and then lunchtime came. I asked O.B. where we ate the bag lunches we both had. “I eat out back. The white boys eat in there.” Huh? I had never run into this before and asked why we all didn’t eat together.
He looked at me with a very puzzled look on his face and then headed out back. As he went through the door, he paused and looked at me with that same puzzled expression. When we returned to work, he didn’t avoid me, but talk was very sparse.
The incident didn’t affect our working well together. Several days later I ventured into that forbidden space and asked him why he wouldn’t eat with me. He asked where I was from and I told him. He guessed I hadn’t had too much contact with “us black folk.” It was a good guess.
It was the first time someone told me, and it was an African-American, that our two “kinds” don’t mix socially and eating was a social thing. I looked him right in the eye and told him it would be a good chance to educate me. “How do you eat that’s different?” I asked. He laughed. At lunch time, he glanced toward the back door and reluctantly sat down with me to eat. A friendship was born that day.
I’ll bet that O.B., as he watches us from above now, is smiling as President Obama takes office and probably says a silent “Thank you” to Martin Luther King, Jr., for being among those getting this day started more than 50 years ago.
I don’t agree with the new President’s politics as I’m not a liberal. It has nothing to do with his color but rather with the Democrat policies that I believe will only get us further and further into crisis. Stimulus packages simply haven’t worked in the past and won’t work now. We cannot keep giving away money and borrowing into more debt to get out of debt.
Nevertheless, Barack Obama will be our new President for at least four years and as Americans, we all should give him our complete support and hope and pray I’m wrong and give him a chance to succeed.
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