45 years ago this coming April, James Earl Ray shot Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis Tennessee. The night before his death Dr. King preached “And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land”.
On Tuesday Janaury 20, 2009, Barack Obama was inaugurated as the first African American president of the United States and it seemed as we had arrived at the promised land and reached the “post racial society”, but have we?
Obviously many milestones have been achieved but this road that started 150 years ago with the Emancipation Proclamation has not been an easy road to follow. But knowing that an African American man who cut his teeth in social organizing on the Southside of Chicago has made it to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave is not only encouraging but empowering and one that gives me tremendous pride.
I think the strides that have been made towards that “more perfect union” are real even if not to the extent we all had hoped.
But no one said any of this would be easy.
Yet we see the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, with only a 12% African American population, elect Deval Patrick for governor in 2008, only the second African American governor since the reconstruction (L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia was first in 1990), and he was re-elected this past fall.
The racial progress just in my short 37 years on this planet have been profound. And I have been witness to see my hometown of Chicago have two African American mayors (Harold Washington & Eugene Sawyer), and my current town of Lockport have a mayor of Indian decent (Dev Trivedi), so the change is real.
I have been fortunate to have the choice to attend any school I wanted to and I was accepted to enroll in both Brother Rice High school and DePaul University and though there were challenges in and out of the classroom, the education I received was first class. I am eternally indebted to innovators like Dr. Martin Luther King & Cardinal Stritch for opening doors of education for all people.
I have been able to travel and not be subject to second class facilities (yet have seen the remnants of them), and I know how far we have come. Its absolutely humbling to know the legacy of those who did so much so today we can have a better life.
Just this past week, James Hood who (with the assistance of President John F Kennedy and the National Guard), helped desegregate the University of Alabama in 1963 has passed. Think of the strength of the soul James and what endured for the two months he attended Alabama (he transferred to Michigan due to the stress of it all), yet returned in 1997 to earn his doctorate degree. Talk about “Roll Tide!”
I remember when Dr. Martin Luther King did not have a national holiday, it was a state holiday here in Illinois that was celebrated on his birthday January 15th . Schools & state offices were closed and it was not lost on my teachers and parents the significance of the day. Remember Stevie Wonder's wonderful song (Happy Birthday To You!”), promoting the fact we needed a national holiday for Dr. King?
In 1983 President Reagan signed into law the Dr. King Holiday and it took effect January 20, 1986. I remember the great pride in getting Dr. King on the level of the other American icons who have a day to be recognized.
Ten years later I was able to meet his daughter Bernice King (now CEO of the King Center), at St. Sabina’s annual King Day function (Fr. Michael Pfleger often has a member of the King Family on hand for the celebration), and it was inspiring to hear her preach and meet her. She carries on her father’s message well.
So on this extended weekend of historical significance, its worth taking sometime to see where we came from, how far we’ve come and the limitless future that stands before us.