Reflection on History

Reflection on History

P. Kevin Morley/Richmond Times-Dispatch

“Politics will never be the same as it was,” said Dr. William Ferguson Reid.

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By Jim Nolan/Media General News Service
Published: January 20, 2009

In President Obama, Virginians share in a historic moment, ideal At 11:56 a.m. today in Washington before a record crowd estimated to be 2 million, 47-year-old Barack Obama will place his left hand on a Bible, raise his right hand and take the oath of office as president of the United States.

And it will be a new day in America.

During the past 220 years, the office has been occupied by only 43 other people—all of them men, and all of them white.

But perhaps never before have so many different Americans felt as if they played a role in changing political history.

“I think that with his election, the phrase ‘We the people’ takes on a whole different meaning,” said Rasheed Nazeri, a University of Richmond student who spent the past year volunteering for Obama. Today, he will be celebrating in the sea of humanity expected to fill the National Mall for the inauguration.

“I think that Barack Obama’s taking the oath of office is a renewal of the American promise.”

From college students to church pastors, young mothers to veteran civil-rights marchers, trailblazing public servants to newly minted citizens, all have emotional connections to Obama—through his background, his upbringing, his successes and his struggles.

On this day, there also is a powerful belief uniting them all, one that transcends even the stunning personal achievement of our new president:

The idea that the American dream is not just a dream. It is real—and it is possible.

“This man is living the American dream that we always thought was the American dream,” said Virginia’s first lady, Anne Holton. “That anybody could grow up on food stamps and, if they were the right person for the job, could be president of the United States. That’s our credo. That’s how we regard ourselves—regardless of race or age or circumstances.

“That’s how we like to think of our country. And this proves that we’re all right.”

. . .

Obama’s picture occupies a place of honor in the foyer of Thelma Bethea’s weathered 100-year-old home in Petersburg—next to the goldframed, lighted portrait of President John F. Kennedy and opposite a latch-hook-rug portrait of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“I love him like a son,” she said proudly. “I also feel that President Obama has no idea of how many people all over the world and in this country feel that he is their son.”

The inauguration has a special meaning for the 74-year-old widow, who marched with King and was a foot soldier in the battle against Massive Resistance and the struggle for civil rights.

“This will really be so joyful and exciting, to see that our country has moved further,” said Bethea, her eyes moistening. “I did not think I’d live to see an African-American become president of the United States. It took longer than it should have but not longer than I thought it would be.”

When he broke the color barrier in 1989 as the nation’s first elected black governor, L. Douglas Wilder said he felt an overwhelming sense of humility and gratitude to all the people who sacrificed to make the moment possible.

Today, he said, the same feelings come to mind, along with the belief that the nation finally is moving closer to the Jeffersonian ideal that all men are created equal.

“It’s almost a moment of catharsis in this country,” Wilder said. “We might just be getting it.”

For Emma Martin, 83, a Federal Aviation Administration retiree who lives in Fredericksburg, this is a moment to share with generations.

“I love the way history is being made, right here, right now, and I’m alive to see it,” Martin said. “Every time I meet young people, I tell them how wonderful it is, how fortunate they are.”

. . .

Not all Virginians think Obama’s inauguration is so wonderful, or that their fortunes will improve because of it.

For some, today’s changing of the guard provokes more anxiety than comfort to a nation already in recession and at war.

“The people I come in contact with are primarily good ‘ol boys hunting and fishing—they’re very traditional and I haven’t had one to say anything good about Obama going into office,” said Bob Moates, owner of Bob Moates Gun Shop in Midlothian.

“They’re concerned about their rights—their gun rights and a lot of other things. They don’t know what’s in store,” said Moates, who today will be minding the store, not the inauguration. “Could be a lot of riots or anything. You don’t know.”

. . .

By contrast, it wasn’t until Obama’s election that Rhiannon Boyd started feeling hopeful about her government and the future of the nation.

Born in rural Southwest Virginia, Boyd, 30, who now lives in Richmond’s Ginter Park neighborhood, volunteered as a “Mama for Obama,” working throughout the city to register voters while toting along her baby daughter, Ava. She and fellow Obama mama Kelli Sexton were among a small group of state volunteers given tickets to today’s ceremony by the campaign.

“I feel like the government will be mine again,” she said last week, seated at a small table in the children’s section of the Belmont branch of the Richmond Public Library.

“We did it,” she added. “The people got him elected.”

Boyd, who teaches philosophy at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, said her passion for Obama comes from his life story—the idea that many can relate to him and, by his accomplishment, see what is possible for themselves and the country.

“I think that we see in him the best of what America is supposed to be, but really hasn’t been, in as long as I can remember,” she said. “I see this event as the first step in the realization of what we should be.”

The possibility of America—what it once was, what it could be—resonates loudly abroad with Obama’s ascension to the presidency, said Betsy Brinson, a Virginia historian who has traveled the world as a social activist and documentary filmmaker.

The next four years, she said, can begin the process of healing America’s reputation in the global community, damaged by the war in Iraq.

“He has so much to offer from his own history, his own experience, his own education, that I’m very optimistic,” said Brinson, 66, who will listen to the swearing-in ceremony on the radio as she drives back to Virginia from Key West, Fla.

“So many people look to this country to be a role model, to be an example,” Brinson said. “There is that good in our country, in our history, that I’m proud of, and I really want to keep us in that perspective of the world.”

Nazeri, the UR student and Obama volunteer, came from a dark corner of the world—in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation and then under rule of the Taliban. Like Obama, he spent much of his life without a father at home; his mother, like Obama’s late mother, has struggled with insurance companies to treat her health problems.

When the opportunity arose to get involved, Nazeri, a naturalized U.S. citizen, organized fellow UR students and registered more than 550 people to vote in the precinct encompassing the school.

“It’s the most fulfilling experience I could have asked for,” the 22-year-old junior said proudly. “I still haven’t quite grasped the full extent of what it means to me and many people. But for me, as a Muslim American, it’s very important.

“For America to have overcome that, to move beyond that and vote for him for his character and what he offered, it’s a big deal. . . . It’s that promise that shows to me and my [future] children that having been born outside the U.S. and having this funny name, it’s not going to be an excuse to not be able to achieve to the fullest.”

. . .

Today, Dr. William Ferguson Reid, like millions of other Americans, will watch history being made from his home. Virginia’s first elected black legislator since Reconstruction, the 83-year-old physician and voting-rights activist said the moment of Obama’s swearing-in will signal no less that the “political emancipation” of the American people.

Like many others, Reid thought it never would happen in his lifetime.

“I think all of us had some tears,” he said, recalling Election Night in November.

Now that Inauguration Day has come, there will be more tears—of joy, and of deliverance from the fear that people wouldn’t look past the color of a man’s skin to judge the content of his character.

“This says basically that people are right,” Reid said. “Politics will never be the same as it was.”

And neither, perhaps, will America.

Inauguration Day, 2009.

President Obama.

“My heart is in my throat every time I think about it,” said first lady Holton.

“I won’t leave my television even at mealtime,” said Martin, the FAA retiree. “I want to know what’s going on every minute there.”

“His story is our story,” said Boyd, the Obama mama. “He is the American story. He is the microcosm of America, writ large.”

Perhaps no one knows that better than Obama.

“This election was never about me,” he said time and again during his historic campaign.

“It was always about you.”

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