In 1963 over 200,000 people mobilized for the March on Washington. The march was intended to demand equal job opportunities, but made history for Dr.Martin Luther King Jr’s mesmerizing and inspiring “I Have a Dream” speech. Dr. King’s declaration was more than a speech, it was a challenge for the American people to become larger than words. On July 2, 1964, change moved closer to reality. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act that outlawed racial segregation.
As with all cultural revolutions the first step is not the final step. Although Civil Rights were guaranteed on paper, change did not move fast enough to meet the needs of everyday life for the disenfranchised. The non-violent movement which was the catalyst for the Civil Rights Act evolved into the more militant Black Power Movement of the mid sixties.The Black Power ideology was most widely embodied by Malcolm X of the Nation of Islam and the Black Panther Party. America as a whole became more politically militant and as a consequence suffered the assassinations of JFK, Malcolm X, Dr. King and Robert Kennedy.
The past four decades have been a mixture of social growing pains and progress. We have overcome polarizing battles such as school busing, suburban ‘white flight’, and Affirmative Action. Ethnic minorities and women have become an integral part of Corporate America, elected office, higher education, and the media. Progress has not been all encompassing in its reach, but much has been gained. Even with that said, it should be no surprise to learn that most people never believed that a Black man or a member of any ethnic minority would become the President of the United States.
As a matter of fact, for many years African-Americans jokingly referred to Bill Clinton as the ‘First Black President’. It was equally unbelievable to witness Barack Obama win the Iowa Caucus last January, draw massive European crowds, secure the Democratic Nomination, and ultimately win the Presidential Election.
Upon entering the national consciousness in 2004, Barack Obama became an instant icon. The type of which is usually reserved for rock stars such as the Beatles. He is arguably the most commercialized elected figure in the world today or perhaps in history. His face has graced the cover of countless magazines and is also available as commemorative coins, t-shirts, buttons, plates and other paraphernalia. In the Sixties Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was distributed as a popular vinyl record and became a staple in many households and libraries. Today, President Obama’s Election Night speech has been remixed with an R&B dance track and is sold on the streets as a CD. Two of the most popular images of Obama are the tri-color portraits by artist Shepard Fairey, which was recently the cover of Time magazine and Dwayne Rodgers “Black President” t-shirt which digitally morphs President Obama with the Nigerian singer / activist Fela Kuti.
While interviewing people about their view of Obama, I was struck by the high level of expectations being loaded onto one man’s shoulders. The common belief is that after an age of terrorism, natural disasters, war, and economic depression, Barack Obama is going to take care of everything and everyone. Of course people acknowledged such an agenda will take time, but still maintained that he will get all the jobs done over an eight year period. With all the positive media attention and the celebrity status, it seems one of the biggest challenges facing President Obama is something that President George W. Bush never had to contend with: the perception of perfection.
In 1995 it was debated whether or not the Million Man March, which was intended as a celebration of black men and unity, gathered one million people in Washington D.C. For the 2009 Inauguration of the first African-American President, there was no doubt about the size of the record breaking multi-ethnic crowd. The event was clearly a massive global affair that was described as a “sea of humanity”. The human outpouring of people and emotion at the inauguration begs the question: As a country, have we finally reached the mountain top as Dr. King envisioned 46 years ago?
With hope comes change and with change comes anxiety. America is now in the midst of uncharted waters which prevent us from turning back to our old ways and dares us to go forward into the unknown. As President Obama asks Americans to collectively reach higher, Americans are already asking one another questions such as: Does the election of President Obama signal the end of White guilt regarding slavery, Jim Crow, and reparations? How does a generation of people who have dedicated their lives to the Movement politically maneuver in an Obama society? Are there potential ramifications when a member of a marginalized minority becomes the leader of the most powerful nation on Earth? These are questions which are up for debate and can only be answered by time and experience.
In the unfolding story of America in the 21st century, President Barack Obama has become something greater than himself. He has become the realization of a national dream.