Thoughts on an Historic Day

What I thought about most watching the inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama as the forty-fourth president of the United States of America was what it must have been like to have been a 72 year old black man in the crowd in DC - someone who grew up in the South.

Consider. He was born in 1936 in Mississippi where there were well over 500 lynchings between 1882 and 1968. Maybe his grandfather was a slave. Both the mayor of his town and the sheriff belonged to the Klu Klux Klan - nice enough if you didn't cross them, but he knew they met and wore the white sheets.

He was 18 in 1954 when the U.S. Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education.

And the next year, he cheered, but quietly, when Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a Montgomery, Alabama, bus as required by city ordinance.

But when he was 20 the Coalition of Southern congressmen called for massive resistance to Supreme Court desegregation rulings and 21 when the Arkansas Governor used the National Guard to block nine black students from attending a Little Rock School.

At the age of 24 he followed the news as four black college students staged a sit-in at lunch counter of a Greensboro, North Carolina, Woolworth's restaurant.

His next year was the year the Freedom Rides began from Washington, D.C., into Southern states.

And not that things weren't ugly before, but in 1962 President Kennedy had to send in federal troops to the University of Mississippi so that the school's first black student could attend, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was unconstitutional in all transportation facilities, and the the Department of Defense ordered full integration of military reserve units (excepting the National Guard).

When he was 27, starting to make a living for his kids, getting by, following things on the news, Civil rights leader Medgar Evers, a fellow Mississippian, was killed by a sniper. His killer would escape conviction until 1994 because two all-white juries could not reach a verdict. But as the song says that man, Byron de la Beckwith, "was only a pawn in their game."

That same year Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech to the assembled at the March on Washington. (Where a musician I have a certain soft-spot for also performed.) Maybe that 72 year old man in the crowd today made the trip there 45 years ago, too. Who knows.

But that was also the year that the Klu Klux Klan bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, leaving four little girls dead; and the year, of course, that John F. Kennedy, a leading advocate for Civil Rights legislation, was assassinated in Dallas.

Then in 1964, at the age of 28, this man saw Congress pass the Civil Rights Act declaring discrimination based on race illegal - after 75-day long filibuster.

But then in his own back yard, three civil rights workers disappeared in Mississippi after being stopped for speeding. Their bodies were found buried six weeks later. State prosecutors refused to try the case, so the federal government stepped in. After several of the men were convicted on federal conspiracy charges, the judge sentenced them to a variety of sentences from three to ten years, saying, "They killed one n_____, one Jew, and a white man. I gave them all what I thought they deserved."

He was 29 when he listened to the news of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, of Malcolm X's death, and the riots in Watts.

Then gradually ... in 1966 Massachusetts elected the first black U.S. senator in 85 years. In 1967 Thurgood Marshall became the first black to be named to the Supreme Court and Cleveland, Ohio and Gary, Indiana elected the first black mayors of major U.S. cities.

In his 33rd year, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.

He was my age when Atlanta elected the first black mayor of a major Southern U.S. city but he had to wait until he was 53 to see the first black governor elected, L. Douglas Wilder of Virgina.

What must it have felt like for that man, standing in the crowd today, to watch a black man, Barack Obama, sworn in to the most powerful political office in the world?

6 comments:

Janine the Bean said...

I can't even begin to imagine what it's like for that man.

What a great historical post.

Thanks Jon. It truly was an amazing moment. I teared up.

The Six of Us said...

A great moment in our nation's history...and beyond imagination that there are still those living who saw such things as acceptable ways of American society.

Colin L said...

Jon,
I think you captured the awe an older black man in the crowd must have felt.

I didn't know you were a Dylan fan also. I wonder how many of those in DC had even heard of Dylan by then. In a lot of southern black cultures, white folk music was not very popular yet.

I love the young, idealistic Dylan.
I don't know why but Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands always fills me with a kind of joy when I listen to it.
Colin LaVergne

JPB said...

Yea ... I'm probably not as long time a Dylan fan as you, Colin, but I am going pretty deep into the collection.

Mainely Me said...

Jon, thanks for the journey down memory lane. Memories of watching the news in grainy B&W on someone's TV, probably with Dad somewhere, realizing the importance of what was going on by his keen interest. Memories of fear because of the chaos; memories of the 'why' questions that sometimes filled my 11-14 year old mind (and to some extent still do as I see it in myself); memories of the black field workers from Stockton that came one year (maybe more} to help harvest the watermelons in the Mohler brothers' river bottom. Memories of going down there with Dad to sit on a log in the shade of those oak trees, crack open and share a melon and listen while Dad visited with them, then standing and watching as they went back to work, tossing those melons down the line in perfect rhythm, filling the wagon so that no melons fell off in transit. Not living in a racially diverse area,
that is my first memory of personal contact with African Americans. When the harvest was over they wanted to come to our church. I'm not sure exactly how that came to be, whether one of the Mohlers invited them or just their own interest, but come they did one Sunday summer evening, along with their drums, guitars, tambourines.... . Now try to imagine the dilemma of those "in charge" at the church where musical instruments are not allowed. I remember watching as it all unfolded in front of us. Dad and a few others saying let them bring the musical instruments in and we can worship their way; others arguing for 'tradition', all while these men waited on the sidelines. Memories of feeling deeply embarrassed and angry that discussion was even needed. Memories of watching as they graciously took their instruments back to their cars and came back in to attend the service. Memories of thinking how it changed the look of the congregation to have them there. Memories of going down to Uncle Dan's after church where all who wanted to come were treated to a 'singing' of a different kind, complete with the musical instruments. I know that race wasn't the issue as much as the musical instruments (or maybe it was), however, it was my first experience of being in the presence of racial tension. This was all mixed in with the events you bring up in this post. So, thanks again for stirring the memories and giving me opportunity to thank God for parents that pointed me in the right direction.

Anonymous said...

Thanks.

It was painful to go through this history in such rapid-fire fashion.

jwv