By Philip Sherwell and Tim Shipman in Washington
17 January 2009
Barack Obama supporters - Barack Obama's installation is the end of a long road to Washington for America's civil rights campaigners
The inauguration of Americas first black president is a moment pregnant with symbolism Photo: AP
In the summer of 1963 Gene Young was just 12 years old but already a veteran of the civil rights struggle. The small-framed, jug-eared boy had been arrested twice during protests in his home town of Jackson, Mississippi. He knew leading lights in the protest movement and had been flown to New York to speak to supporters about his experiences.
But nothing prepared him for the sight as the bus on which he was travelling rolled into Washington DC on the morning of August 28 after a near-24 hour journey from Mississippi. "I was mesmerised by the monuments, the grand buildings and the crowds," he recalls. "I'd never seen so many people in my life."
He was one of more than 200,000 who gathered that day on the national mall to hear Martin Luther King deliver one of the great speeches of the 20th century – the "I Have A Dream" address.
Last August, Mr Young spoke to The Sunday Telegraph of his hopes and fears for Barack Obama's election campaign, convinced he was the best man for the nation's top job but scared that his race would sabotage his chances.
Those concerns were wiped away on election night on Nov 4. And on Tuesday, he will return to Washington, accompanied by his 27-year-old daughter Joy, to witness what many regard as the final realisation of Dr King's dream – a nation where people will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.
"It's come full circle," said Mr Young, 58, a retired university professor. "I was there for Dr King and I'll be there for Barack Hussein Obama taking the oath of office. I will be witnessing the sort of history that I never dreamed was possible in my lifetime."
The inauguration of Americas first black president is a moment pregnant with symbolism and possibilities but also redolent of the challenges that he faces. Recognition that his achievement in winning the election is immense is at once an acknowledgement that race remains the great fault line of American society.
Indeed, Mr Obama's ability to improve the lot of African Americans through his policies and provide a positive role model by his example will be a key yardstick of his performance in the White House.
The parallels between 1963 – when 2,000 buses, 21 special trains and 10 chartered airliners ferried the crowds for the March on Washington – and 2009 are plentiful.
Many of the 10,000 buses expected this year will be from the southern states where segregation still reigned when Dr King made his speech. Tuesday's spectacle is expected to dwarf anything seen before in Washington, with up to three million expected to attend.
Mr Young recalls that in 1963, the greatness of the moment crept up on him. "I didn't really understand the historical significance but I understood the excitement. There were speaker throughout the day. And then the preacher from Atlanta approached the podium and spoke those magical words."
On Tuesday as he looks out at the sea of faces, many of them black, stretching from the US Capitol to the Washington monument and beyond, Barack Obama will leave no doubt that he understands what the moment represents. Over the last year he cleaved to the symbolism of race and reconciliation wherever he could find it.
Dr King spoke all those years ago on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Mr Obama began his presidential campaign in front of the Illinois capitol, where Abraham Lincoln, emancipator of Michelle Obama's slave forebears, made his most famous speech against slavery.
Mr Obama delivered his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention in Denver 45 years to the day after Dr King's famous address.
On Monday he will lead commemorations of Martin Luther King Day, which he has designated a day of voluntary service, with more than 10,000 events planned nationwide. On Tuesday he is likely to channel both Dr King and President Lincoln as his muses, in an inaugural address of which much is expected.
Sir Harold Evans, the British-born journalist and writer who was boss of Random House publishers when it signed up Mr Obama's memoir Dreams From My Father, traveled in South as a student. He said: "What Barack Obama says on Tuesday will be extremely significant. You can expect the speech to be emotional but have a thoughtful aspect to it. He knows that certain words are significant in a way that George W Bush doesn't understand the subtlety of language. Like Lincoln, Obama does. Expect talk of sacrifice, shared interest, unity of purpose."
Even en route to Washington in 1963, activists like Gene Young had a stark reminder of why they were campaigning – they were refused service in a whites-only restaurant in Georgia. "We couldn't eat in the same restaurant, drink sodas at the same counter or get our hair cut in the same barbershops," he recalls. "I remember the signs for coloureds and whites at different water fountains when I was growing up."
The priority then was voter registration and defeating the obstacles to blacks casting their ballot. Mr Young's home state was the epicentre of some of the ugliest incidents in the civil rights struggle – most infamously, in a case immortalised by the film Mississippi Burning, the murder of three young activists, two white, one black, who were trying to register voters.
"They lost their life so that we could vote," Mr Young said. "I used to tell my late son when he was growing up that a black man would be elected president one day. But I didn't really believe it would happen in my lifetime. I will be thinking of all those who came before me and before Barack Obama. He could never have done this without them."
He will be met in Washington by his daughter Joy who grew up listening to her father's stories and enthusiasm for the civil rights movement.
Yet as a young black professional – she is the human resources coordinator for a marine technology company – she had not felt the same drive or motivation before the Obama candidacy.
"The role of the civil rights struggle was ingrained in me by Dad but I think my generation had lacked our moment until now," she said. "It's not just that Obama is black. In fact, he's biracial. It's that he is such a refreshing change, a uniter, a hope for a better future."
Internationally, his election has of course been welcomed that much has changed for the better in American society. As Sir Harold puts it: "In terms of the world view of America, the fact that a country can choose as its next president a minority figure who could not have got elected to a school board a couple of generations ago is remarkable."
At home the effect will also prove profound, Mr Young is sure. "Make no mistake, there is still racism in this country in subtle and not so subtle forms," he says. "But now little kids can know, regardless of their race or colour, that they too can grow up and live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue."
But most commentators agree that it will take more than symbolism and the goodwill engendered by Mr Obamas election to transform the lot of black Americans. Shelby Steele, Americas leading black conservative author, said: "His election documents a moral evolution in American society that I think has already long ago happened. I don't think it portends too much new into the future."
Seven out of ten black children in America today were born out of wedlock. A staggering 55 per cent of federal prisoners are black, while African Americans make up just 13 per cent of the US population. White household annual income is double that of blacks and median total wealth is 10 times greater in white homes. Just 43 per cent of black students graduate from college, 20 per cent below the figure for whites.
Yet it is instructive of Mr Obama's character and political approach that he has seldom confronted race directly as a candidate or president-elect. The furore surrounding his pastor Rev Jeremiah Wright prompted Mr Obama to give a nuanced speech on race during the campaign.
But that was directed primarily at nervous white voters unnerved by Rev Wrights incendiary statements, blaming America for spreading the Aids virus. On traditional black issues he has been largely silent.
Shelby Steele, who like Mr Obama has a black father and a white mother, sees the president-elect as the most successful example of a type of black public figure he calls a "bargainer" – of which Oprah Winfrey and Bill Cosby are also examples.
"A bargainer gives whites the benefit of the doubt and says: I will not ram the history of racism in your face if you will not hold my race against me. Whites are invariably grateful because it is important for whites to feel that they are not racist."
Dr Steele's terminology seems to have clear applications to Mr Obama's approach to politics and governing. With the white working class, religious voters, gun owners and now during his transition process also Republican congressmen, he has repeatedly sought to present himself as no threat to their most dearly held beliefs.
So far it has been effective. But in racial politics, just as in his handling of the economy, health care, energy and foreign affairs (the top items on his agenda), Mr Obama will soon have to make tough those choices that will inevitably divide people.
"He avoids race because he's a bargainer," said Mr Steele. "I don't think he will take it on directly. I don't think he'll rock the boat. There's a lot of hopefulness in the black community. There's going to be a lot of disappointment. There's going to be no immediate deliverance from the realities that blacks face day to day after Tuesday."
Untainted so far by the power of the highest office, Mr Obama's power is certainly a symbol and a role model both for disaffected black youth and fellow black politicians. Many saw Rev Jesse Jackson's tears on election night as the product not just of black pride but a requiem for the passing of a generation of civil rights leaders – of which he and Rev Al Sharpton are the two most prominent.
They have long chosen confrontation and anger over conciliation and the almost preternatural calm with which the president-elect goes about business. And Mr Obama has also shown himself willing to use his bully pulpit to take on the African-American community, issuing jovial but pointed critiques of the fried chicken diet of some black families and more impassioned attacks directed at young black men about the need to be responsible fathers.
In this he was echoing Bill Cosby, the comedian whose series depicting a middle class black family was for five years the top rated show on US television and who has now reinvented himself as an outspoken critic of black fecklessness.
Mr Cosby said last week he is optimistic about Mr Obamas chances of encouraging higher black educational achievement (seen by some young blacks as "acting white") as people absorb that the new First Couple achieved success, not by being born with a lot of money but by working hard.
"An awful lot of young males and females see this and they really realise: 'OK, man, I don't have to play basketball. I don't have to be a rapper. I don't have to be a comedian. I don't have to be an actor. There it is. It's about college'."
Mr Obama's challenge will be to use politics to turn that promise and enthusiasm into something more concrete. Fans of Mr Obama know that the road ahead will be tough, but they have faith that he can cope. Edith Childs, who achieved brief fame on the campaign trail when Mr Obama adopted her recitation of the civil right chant 'Fired up! Ready to go!' at a campaign meeting, said last week: "I think he can handle what's thrown at him. I've watched him for a long time. Just look at how he's handled himself so far."
When Sir Harold Evans watches on Tuesday he will see a man whose greatest achievement is to usher in a post-racial era. "I think that most people view him not as a black man but simply as President-elect Obama," he said.
But those who marched in the same footsteps in 1963 will listen to Mr Obama and inevitably hear echoes of another leader, and see the culmination of a generation of dreams.
"Dr King used to use a colloquial phrase to remind us that we had come a long way but we still had a long way to go," said Gene Young. "He would say: 'We ain't what we want to be. We ain't what we gonna be. But thank God we ain't what we was'.
"Well, now we're much closer to being what we want to be and what we're gonna be."
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