Surveying the sea of humanity at a star-studded presidential inaugural concert on Washington, DC’s National Mall, Matt Jacobson recalled a march on Washington 46 years ago, when civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech.
“The dream has come true,” said Jacobson, a 75-year-old DC resident who was born and raised in North Carolina.
Reminiscing about his childhood in the segregated South, when electoral laws blatantly discriminated against African-American voters, Jacobson marvelled at the strides the country has since taken.
“This”, he said of the pre-inaugural crowd, “was Rev. Martin Luther King’s dream.”
Across the USA, the Monday after King’s January 15 birthday is commemorated as Martin Luther King Day. It just so happens that this year, the holiday falls on the eve of the inauguration of Barack Obama, the first black president of the USA. The propitious timing has heaped a generous helping of symbolism on an already historic chapter in US history.
A ‘‘post-racial’’ candidate
During his record-shattering presidential campaign, Obama was often portrayed as a harbinger of a “post-racial” America.
The son of a white American mother and a black Kenyan father, Obama has a mixed racial heritage. But while Obama has unambiguously embraced a black identity, experts noted that he seldom referred to the ugliness of America’s bitter racial history on the campaign trail, opting instead for the conciliatory discourse of national unity.
“Obama tried to run a race-neutral campaign,” said Ronald Walters, professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland. “The campaign tried to keep race out of the picture.”
And that, according to Leland Ware, a professor at the University of Delaware, was “the appropriate thing to do”.
Had Obama made race an issue, Ware said, he would have been perceived as “a black candidate representing only black people”.
A former campaign manager for Reverend Jesse Jackson during his two presidential bids, Walters noted that Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 campaigns were “widely perceived to be a vehicle for African-American empowerment”. With Obama’s victory, Walters said, the nation “might be moving into something of a new historical era”.
‘‘Chocolate City’’ embraces its black identity
Race neutrality may have characterised Obama’s campaign trail, but with the White House race won, the inaugural festivities in the nation’s capital have warmly embraced the future president’s black heritage.
Washington, DC is sometimes called the “Chocolate City” — or simply “CC” — in acknowledgment of the city’s African-American majority and its pride in its black identity.
These days, Chocolate City is in an expressive mode. A nightclub in downtown Washington offers a special concoction of rum, cinnamon and caramel called the “Dream” cocktail while myriad T-shirts and makeshift art installations across the city feature Obama with an image of King.
But Chocolate City — like the rest of the country — continues to be a divided place. In the heart of the nation’s capital, the country’s governing elite functions in a world quite apart from the islands of downtrodden, predominantly black areas.
The unfinished business of the civil rights movement
Across the nation, African-Americans continue to lag behind their white counterparts in educational and employment opportunities.
A study released by United for a Fair Economy, a Boston-based research centre, last week noted that 11.9% of African-Americans were unemployed in December 2008 according to federal statistics, compared with the national average of 7.2%. In the case of young black men, the unemployment rate was at 32.8%, compared with 18.3% unemployment among their white counterparts.
Overall, the study noted, 24% of blacks live in poverty in the United States, compared with 8% of fellow white Americans.
And that, according to Troy Jackson, senior pastor at the University Christian Church in Cincinnati and author of the book “Becoming King”, is sadly not about to change.
“During the presidential debates, the middle class was the focus of attention,” said Jackson. “But if it concerns the poor, it’s not on the political radar.”
Reducing black poverty should be the priority now for the civil rights movement, says Walters.
“It’s not something the president can do, because once he gets into the Oval Office, he has several different agendas,” he told FRANCE 24. “It’s the duty of the civil rights movement to put this on the agenda.”
In other words, on the eve of the inauguration of the first black president of the USA, King’s dream is still a work in progress.