My earliest memory in life was watching the funeral procession of President John F. Kennedy on my grandparents’ large console black and white television. At age 4, I could not understand the magnitude of what I was watching, but I can vividly recall how upsetting it was to see my parents and grandparents crying.
Growing up as a boy in Louisville, Ky., I recall trying to make sense of a world that seemed to be coming apart at the seams. Civil rights marches, the Vietnam War and the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were difficult to comprehend for a fourth-grader.
Fortunately, I was blessed to have parents who guided me through that tumultuous time and instilled in my brothers, my sister and me the belief that we should not judge people by the color of their skin.
My father is no longer with us, but my mother is. In fact, my wife, our two sons and I took my mother with us this summer to visit Washington, D.C., where I was blessed to watch my mother view and experience this nation’s monuments, memorials, Arlington Cemetery, the Capitol and the White House for the first time. She was visibly inspired and spiritually moved by what she saw and still is today.
As Barack Obama stood in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial and spoke during the unprecedented pre-inaugural concert on Sunday, I thought again of those moments my parents and I shared as I tried to make sense of the world as a child.
I do know this: My father, a former U.S. Marine who had an inherent sense of fairness and justice, would have an enormous sense of pride about America right about now. Dad was an optimist who sought out the best in people. He was the kind of guy who loved a good Western movie, in which the good guy rode away at the end with the girl.
As I grew older, I had many talks with Dad about civil rights and other issues of the day. I was reminded of those father-son chats when I read about a child at Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., who perhaps said it best when he recited a poignant reading to the Obamas during a service on Sunday: "Rosa Parks sat so that Martin Luther King Jr. could walk. Martin Luther King walked so that Barack Obama could run. Barack Obama ran so that all children can fly."
There are moments in this great country’s history that transcend politics. They are bigger than party affiliations. This is one of those moments. An African-American man is about to become president of these United States. In his lifetime, our country has moved forward from being a nation that did not allow people of color to vote or sit in the front of a bus to this transcendent moment. Obama and his family will occupy the White House, which was built by the labor of slaves.
Obama’s election as president affirms the American dream for all of its people. I do not know what kind of president Obama is going to be. He faces daunting challenges at home and abroad. Come Wednesday, he will begin to be judged just like all his predecessors, as well he should be.
But this I know in my heart: This man is a man of destiny. He seems to have the focus, the intellect, the demeanor and the judgment to not only tackle the incredible challenges in front of him, but to lead us on the next chapter of the American journey.
Many cynics have dismissed Obama as simply a gifted speaker. He is that. But you know what? Great speeches matter. They mattered when Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address and delivered his second inaugural speech. Those words are inscribed on the Lincoln monument. They mattered when Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his first inaugural speech ("… The only thing we have to fear is fear itself…"). They mattered when John Kennedy, at his inaugural, told us, "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." They mattered when Ronald Reagan spoke so eloquently, "America is a shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere."
Each of those men not only knew how to deliver thoughtful speeches, but they inspired the nation to follow them on a higher cause.
To their words, I now add these from Obama on Sunday:
"It is you – Americans of every race and region and station who came here because you believe in what this country can be and because you want to help us get there. It is the same thing that gave me hope from the day we began this campaign for the presidency nearly two years ago; a belief that if we could just recognize ourselves in one another and bring everybody together – Democrats, Republicans and independents; Latino, Asian and Native American; black and white, gay and straight, disabled and not – then not only would we restore hope and opportunity in places that yearned for both, but maybe, just maybe, we might perfect our union in the process. This is what I believed, but you made this belief real. You proved once more that people who love this country can change it. And as I prepare to assume the presidency, yours are the voices I will take with me every day I walk into that Oval Office – the voices of men and women who have different stories but hold common hopes; who ask only for what was promised us as Americans – that we might make of our lives what we will and see our children climb higher than we did."
We may not all agree on policies. But know this: Barack Obama is appealing to our best instincts as a just, fair and humane nation. I see how my teenage sons, the eldest of whom voted for the first time in his life on Nov. 4, look at Obama and are proud to call him their president.
Thank you, Mom & Dad. And may God bless America.
Steve Jagler is executive editor of BizTimes Milwaukee.