Milestones and Millstones: Stepping Toward the Future

The circle is complete, the Dream now realized.

Barack H. Obama entered his second term as President of the United States, taking an oath to uphold its Constitution with a hand on two Bibles. One had belonged to the Emancipator, President Abraham Lincoln. The other was owned by the Dreamer and Civil Rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

By doing so, Obama signaled his personal commitment to their ultimate cause – freedom of oppressed people and equality under the law for all. He essentially said as much in his second inaugural speech. And he said it on the national holiday observance of Dr. King’s birthday and in a year loaded with special historical significance.

Now that the first openly Black President sits in the world’s most powerful office, things are now normal, and we can all forget the past and move ahead toward a brave new world.

Right?

If only it were that easy.

People who have power often refuse to release it. The more power they have, or think they have, the more they fight to keep it. Through greed, false notions of supremacy, arrogance, even complacency, they corrupt other, less powerful people who help them fight. And the fight is always nasty, brutish and, sadly, stubbornly entrenched.

One of the reasons America is the envy of the world is its people’s embrace of noble ideals upon which it was founded.

The world is awed because our nation, through a Democratic process, overcame its past to elect a president (twice) who look like Obama and his family, the descendants of enslaved Africans who were freed through the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil War 150 years ago. Fifty years ago, African Americans in the streets of Birmingham waged an unconventional battle in a long-fought moral, spiritual and legal war to win the rights guaranteed in the Constitution Obama swore to uphold.

In August 1963, months after the successful Birmingham campaign, Dr. King and other civil rights leaders from across the country stood on the Lincoln Memorial steps – not far from the spot where Obama stood Monday – to say he had a Dream, that one day America would live up to its cherished ideals.

But as Obama said, the statistics on poverty and inequities in this country indicate that work is not yet complete. The journey is not yet over.

Even as hundreds gathered to celebrate Dr. King’s holiday at the annual Unity Breakfast in Birmingham, at least 100 more stood outside to let their leaders know that the poor are still suffering and need their voices. The protestors still demand justice after the Jefferson County Commission ended inpatient and emergency room services at Cooper Green Mercy Hospital without a proper healthcare alternative to serve the poor and under-insured.

Whether you agreed or not with the protestors’ decision to boycott the event, the message is still the same – Dr. King’s work is not over. He would have been concerned about inequities because his faith tradition demanded it, the faith tradition upon which the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that Dr. King led was founded.

In fact, the SCLC’s slogan was “To redeem the soul of America.” Its founders truly believed that a country with such noble ideals, that claimed to be a world leader during the Cold War, could not be truly great as long as the vestiges of slavery, white supremacy and social and political suppression remained deeply embedded in its laws and culture.

Concern should lead to planning and planning to action. And this is where we find ourselves today, needing some good plans and people willing to act on them. Obama embodies the next generation of leadership seeking to solve today’s issues.

But to do that, I believe, as I’ve said many times before, we have to look back. The past is not a millstone to drag us down. Rather it is a touchstone that helps us plan for the future. We can’t afford to look at history through rose-colored glasses, nor wallow in the pain of it. We have to sift through it all, embrace the good, reject the ugly. It’s the only way we learn not to make the same mistakes.

In his inaugural speech Monday, President Obama mentioned Selma (though not Birmingham?) and the March on Washington that happened 50 years ago. His very presence at the podium was a direct result of those historic events and the people who made them happen, including Mississippi civil rights martyr Medgar Evers who was represented at the inauguration through his widow Myrlie.

Those generational milestones — from 150, 100, and 50 years ago – referenced in the President’s speech are stepping stones toward a fully-realized America. In his vision for that America, the freedom of its individual citizens “is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on earth.”

The President cannot afford to forget those past lessons as he sets a course for the next 50 years. And neither can we, especially if we intend to re-brand Birmingham and our state.

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