It was a somber, winter’s day in Georgia on Feb. 7, 2006. Thousands of people had gathered that day at the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia to pay their respects to the legacy and family of the late Coretta Scott King. All four living presidents, H.W. Bush, G.W. Bush, Carter and Clinton attended. Accompanying them was a sizable congressional delegation from both the United States House of Representatives and the Senate. Among them was Barack Hussein Obama, then the junior senator from the state of Illinois. Obama was easy to identify as he was the lone African-American Senator.
I remember thinking how appropriate it was for him to pay his respects to the widow of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who had he lived to see his birthday this week would have been 80 years old and most certainly planning a return trip to Washington, D.C. to see a major component of his "dream" come to fruition.
One year and three days later, the junior senator would begin to make history of his own. On Feb. 10, 2007, Sen. Obama announced his bid to become the first president from the state of Hawaii and the second from the political fabric of Illinois. Exactly 143 weeks passed between the funeral for Mrs. King and the historic election held Nov. 4, 2008. Perhaps no one in the history of American politics has utilized time so wisely. Yet, as I recall the many dignitaries, historical icons and generations present that day at New Birth, I am convinced that the significance of the 2009 presidential inauguration is much bigger than Barack Obama — I think he would agree.
Perhaps it is culturally impossible for many to appreciate the unprecedented sense of enthusiasm and euphoria generated by the election of Barack Obama. Nonetheless, my prayer is that everyone who loves America would pause at some point between now and Jan. 20 to understand why the entire world will be watching with baited breath. Tuesday will not be a day for partisanship. Political party affiliation will not be a consideration. This is bigger than Obama.
Jan. 20, 2009, is one mystical moment comprised of millions of both memorable and miserable minutes. This moment is more than 400 years in the making, during which the trans-Atlantic slave trade was responsible for the displacement and delivery of approximately 15 million Africans to the Caribbean, North and South American continents. Most historians agree that the industrial strength of our nation would not have been possible without the institution of chattel slavery. Throughout its prehistory and for the first 87 years of its existence, America was built on the backs of slaves. This is bigger than Obama.
Many dehumanizing and humiliating legal injustices occurred, depicting the second-class status of African-Americans. Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the United States Constitution reduced African-Americans to 3/5 of a person. The 1857 Supreme Court decision against Dred Scott determined that people of African descent and those held as slaves could not be deemed American citizens nor could they seek equal protection under the law, nor through the courts. In addition, the period from 1882 to 1968 saw the explosion of lynching. There were 4,743 recorded lynchings, more than 72 percent of them were perpetrated against African-Americans while another 27 percent were whites often killed for assisting African-Americans. No doubt, this is bigger than Obama.
In 1892, Homer Adolph Plessy, who happened to be 1/8 African and 7/8 white, was arrested for refusing to leave a "whites only" rail car. What followed in 1896 was the historic Plessy vs. Ferguson decision which upheld that "separate but equal" segregation was lawful. When you imagine that a justice from that same institution — the Supreme Court — will swear in our 44th president, you can only conclude that this is bigger than Obama.
When you confront inspired and proud African-Americans over the next few days and the next four years, be aware that the consequence of this election is confirmation that America has embraced and affirmed the sons and daughters of slaves in a way that was seldom anticipated. Although Michelle Obama was lambasted during the campaign for admitting that for the first time in her adult life that she was really proud of her country, her comments simply reflect the fact that conscientious African-Americans must come to terms with the historical calamities of our not too distant past. For African-Americans, the journey toward unbridled patriotism has been a "stony road." All things considered, in spite of all of its ugly history and undeniable struggles with evil, this inauguration is evidence that the United States of America is simply the greatest country in the history of planet Earth!
This inaugural moment will demolish the vestiges of irresponsible Biblical interpretation that dark-skinned humans were the result of the curse of Ham. It destroys the mythology of 19th Century pseudo-scientific studies that sought to link our African ancestry to primates and the falsehood that the anatomy of our brains lacked the capacity for scholastic aptitude.
Around noon Jan. 20, Obama’s oath of office will signify the indelible truth that all men (and women) are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights which include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Those words were written by our third president. Who knew then that President Thomas Jefferson’s descendants today would comprise every color, hue and ethnicity? Tuesday, the National Mall will look like a Thomas Jefferson family reunion — and that’s a good thing. More than 5 million people are projected to be in attendance because… this is bigger than Obama!
Eric Lee is the pastor of Springfield Baptist Church in Conyers.