(Orlando Sentinel) WASHINGTON — I begin writing this column early Monday morning, on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and one day before the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States and the country’s first African-American president.
It is 20 degrees outside, and I am sipping on hot coffee in the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel in Washington D.C. four blocks from Capitol Hill. The hotel is buzzing with a spirit of anticipation and renewal. The streets are crawling with the rejuvenated spirits of hundreds of thousands of people from every conceivable background.
As King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is played over and over in the hotel lobby, I am reflecting on his legacy as well as other civil- and human-rights leaders such as Harriet Tubman, Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X. I am proud that freedom and liberty are ingrained into the African-American identity, and that we faithfully served as America’s moral compass during its darkest chapters.
It is fitting and poetically ironic that King’s birthday falls on the eve of the inauguration of our first African-American president. Within a 24-hour period, Americans will not only hear about and contemplate King’s dream, but also witness it. It is a dream made possible by the hopes, imaginings and hardships of American descendants of slave masters, enslaved Africans and other groups seeking to perfect our union. Despite our violent and unjust history, only a great nation could evolve from legal segregation to the lawful election of an African-American president less than 45 years out of this nation’s apartheid.
As hotel guests arrive for the inauguration, I see euphoria on their faces. There is a grand sense of unity among people from all walks of life — a harmonious patriotic flow among Americans that I have rarely seen. I too feel elated. I ask a beautiful elderly African-American woman sitting next to me what Obama’s election means to her, and she looks me square in the eyes, and with a gracious smile, replies, “Freedom. I can now go to the Lord in peace.”
A 40-something white woman sitting a table away overhears our conversation and begins weeping. I take a teary-eyed sigh and silently lean back in my chair, filled with pride. For many, Obama’s inauguration signals a new era of consciousness that will eventually deliver a death blow to racial bigotry. Time will tell.
As I sip on my coffee, a man pats me on the shoulder while passing by and loudly says, “How did you like the ball?” The night before, my wife and I had attended the 2009 Inaugural Latino Gala at Union Station that featured Marc Anthony, Jennifer Lopez and George Lopez. It was fantastic. I felt privileged to witness so many blissful people dart around the District to attend the various galas.
My family and I left the hotel that morning, walked on the National Mall and visited a few of the Smithsonian Institution’s wonderful museums. The Mall and museums were packed with tens of thousands of people eagerly waiting for Obama’s inauguration. Although the nation’s capital is not known for being jovial, on this day, everyone was unusually buoyant. It was pleasantly eerie.
On Tuesday, my wife and I woke up early, dressed in triple layers and marched to the Capitol. It was our “March on Washington” to fulfill a shared dream. It was very cold, and we waited like huddling sheep for nearly two hours before the gates of history opened. We watched the inauguration unfold 150 yards away from President Obama to the backdrop of nearly 2 million roaring souls. Thomas Jefferson abolished the American slave trade; Abraham Lincoln emancipated black Americans; and King led America out of segregation and moral darkness. America has wisely chosen a man once considered three-fifths of a person under our original Constitution to lead the country and the world out of political and economic turmoil. What a wonderful country. No recounts required.