Inauguration Eve

This is a remarkable week for our country. Tomorrow, Barack Obama will take the oath of office as the first African-American president of the United States. How appropriate it is that the day before is a holiday commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

What people don’t remember—or perhaps choose not to remember—is that Dr. King died feeling that he had failed. The loudest voices of the time were those of Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, and Malcolm X. Nonviolence wasn’t working. Perhaps the time had come for stronger medicine.

Now, fifty years later, we can appreciate Dr. King’s wisdom and sacrifice. I have always remembered a comment he made in a television interview. I don’t know if I am quoting him correctly, but this is what I remember him saying,

“We’re in a ditch. But we’re not going to stay in the ditch. Nobody wants to stay in a ditch. If you want to keep us in the ditch, you’re going to have to climb down here and stand on us. Now we’re both in the ditch. Let me show you a better way. Why don’t you reach down and give us a hand so we can pull ourselves out of this ditch. Then we can walk down the road together.”

I am also thinking back to John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. What was the Kennedy era like? Some call it Camelot. To me, it’s Oz. How so? Think of The Wizard of Oz. The scenes when Dorothy is in Kansas are black-and-white. After she lands in Oz, it’s all glorious technicolor.

That’s what the Kennedy years were like. Everything before and most of what came after was ugly, gray, boring. The Kennedys—wow! We’ve had nothing like them since. My gosh! Jack even had Marilyn Monroe singing Happy Birthday to him!

I remember watching the Inauguration on the black-and-white TV in our basement. John Kennedy, without a hat on a freezing day, said, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” I felt as if he were talking to me. Who would ever ask a kid to do anything important? I felt that John Kennedy had done just that. I was stunned. My dad sat in his chair, puffing away on a cigar. He didn’t get it. It was just words to him. But I got it. John Kennedy wasn’t talking to my dad. He was talking to me. He was asking me what kind of world I wanted to live in, and what I was willing to do to bring that world into being.

I can’t say that my generation has lived up to the promise or accomplished all that it might have achieved. But we tried. We certainly came a long way. So I’ll watch the Inauguration tomorrow. But I know that Barack Obama won’t really be talking to geezers like me anymore than Jack Kennedy was talking to my dad. He’ll be talking to the kids out in the audience.

You’re the future, Kids. The world’s back in technicolor again.

And this time, it’s yours!

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