Obama’s Speech Carries Special Resonance for CBC

Posted January 19, 2009 at 7:15am

As the first African-American to take the presidential oath of office, Barack Obama represents to many in Congress the fulfillment of the nation’s founding promise and declaration that “all men are created equal.” But for members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Obama’s inaugural address will serve as the ultimate bookend to the iconic speech delivered by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. from the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. “Forty-five years ago, we were looking up towards the Capitol, and now we’ll be looking down at Mr. Lincoln’s Memorial,” said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who was on stage with King on that August day when he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech as part of a massive march for civil rights in the nation’s capital. Obama is scheduled to be administered the oath at midday Tuesday by Chief Justice John Roberts on a stage built upon the west steps of the Capitol that looks out onto the National Mall. Around 2 million people are expected to flood into Washington, D.C., to view the inaugural festivities. Special for virtually every Democrat on Capitol Hill, Obama’s inauguration carries particular import for the 41 members of the CBC. Many got their start in politics tearing down racial barriers as activists in the civil rights movement but are nonetheless still staggering at the thought that one of their own is about to move into the White House. Rep. Al Green (D-Texas), born 62 years ago in the segregated South, said his parents preached “self-respect, dignity, hope and a belief that you could grow up and become president of the United States.” Green said that as he grew up in New Orleans and later in Houston, he witnessed the legal vestiges of Jim Crow laws tumble, only to be replaced by “covert discrimination.” “I believed in my heart that it was possible for a black to become president, but I knew in my head it was improbable,” Green said. “I knew [racism] still existed. However, there was no acid test to ascertain how much or how little covert discrimination existed.” “Barack Obama was the acid test,” Green continued. “His election has demonstrated that clearly, black Americans have come a long way.” Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), a Harvard Law School classmate of Obama’s and the first House Member outside the Illinois delegation to endorse him two years ago, represents a younger generation of African-American leaders. While many of his older CBC colleagues, including Lewis, endorsed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) in the Democratic primaries in part because they were slow to believe Obama could win, Davis said he rarely doubted the election’s outcome. Davis announced his then-lonely endorsement of Obama on Jan. 16, 2007 – the same day Obama released an online video declaring that he was exploring a bid. “I thought he’d be standing up there on the West Front of the Capitol on Jan. 20, 2009, being sworn in as the next president of the United States,” said Davis, who is often mentioned as a future candidate for higher office. Obama’s inauguration, the Congressman explained, “reaffirms my sense that America is a place of promise. And that’s not just about my political career, but the aspirations of all kinds of young people around our country.” For those who have struggled, added CBC Chairwoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), “this is a day to behold and celebrate.” Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.