By BOB HERBERT
Published: January 19, 2009
And so it has happened, this very strange convergence. The holiday celebrating the birth of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. became, in the midnight hour, the day that America inaugurates its first black president.
It’s a day on which smiles will give way to tears and then return quickly to smiles again, a day of celebration and reflection.
Dr. King would have been 80 years old now. He came to national prominence not trying to elect an African-American president, but just trying to get us past the depraved practice of blacks being forced to endure the humiliation of standing up and giving their seat on a bus to a white person, some man or woman or child.
Get up, girl. Get up, boy.
Dr. King was just 26 at the time, a national treasure in a stylish, broad-brimmed hat. He was only 39 when he was killed, eight years younger than Mr. Obama is now.
There are so many, like Dr. King, who I wish could have stayed around to see this day. Some were famous. Most were not.
I remember talking several years ago with James Farmer, one of the big four civil rights leaders of the mid-20th century. (The others were Dr. King, Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young.) Farmer enraged authorities in Plaquemine, La., in 1963 by organizing demonstrations demanding that blacks be allowed to vote. Tired of this affront, a mob of state troopers began hunting Farmer door to door.
The southern night trembled once again with the cries of abused blacks. As Farmer described it: “I was meant to die that night. They were kicking open doors, beating up blacks in the streets, interrogating them with electric cattle prods.”
A funeral director saved Farmer by having him “play dead” in the back of a hearse, which carried him along back roads and out of town.
Farmer died in 1999. Imagine if he could somehow be seated in a place of honor at the inauguration alongside Dr. King and Mr. Wilkins and Mr. Young. Imagine the stories and the mutual teasing and the laughter, and the deep emotion that would accompany their attempts to rise above their collective disbelief at the astonishing changes they did so much to bring about.
And then imagine a tall white man being ushered into their presence, and the warm smiles of recognition from the big four — and probably tears — for someone who has been shamefully neglected by his nation and his party, Lyndon Johnson.
Johnson’s contributions to the betterment of American life were nothing short of monumental. For blacks, he opened the door to the American mainstream with a herculean effort that resulted in the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He followed up that bit of mastery with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“Once the black man’s voice could be translated into ballots,” Johnson would say, “many other breakthroughs would follow.”
Without Lyndon Johnson, Barack Obama and so many others would have traveled a much more circumscribed path.
I wish Johnson could be there, his commitment to civil rights so publicly vindicated, his eyes no doubt misting as the oath of office is administered.
It’s so easy, now that the moronic face of racism is so seldom openly displayed, to forget how far we’ve really come. When Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech” at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, it was illegal, just a stone’s throw away in Virginia, for whites and blacks to marry. Illegal! Just as it is illegal now for gays to marry.
Less than a month after the speech, members of the Ku Klux Klan bombed a black church in Birmingham, Ala., where children had gathered for a prayer service. Four girls were killed. Three were 14 years old, and one was 11.
My sister, Sandy, and I, growing up in Montclair, N.J., a suburb of New York City, were protected from the harshest rays of racism by a family that would let nothing, least of all some crazy notion of genetic superiority, soil our view of the world or ourselves.
My grandparents, who struggled through the Depression and World War II, and my parents, who worked tirelessly to give Sandy and me a wonderful upbringing in the postwar decades, seemed always to have believed that all good things were possible.
Even if the doors of opportunity were closed, they didn’t believe they were locked. Hard work, in their eyes, was always the key.
Still, the idea of a black president of the United States never came up. Perhaps even for them that was too much to imagine. I wish they could have stayed around long enough to see it.