The inauguration Tuesday of President Barack Obama will mark a historic milestone in the evolution of our nation.
As a baby boomer born in 1951 and growing up in the 1950s and '60s, I became conscious of the racial inequalities in our nation during a time when civil rights debates were at the forefront of everyone's consciousness.
As a child in New York I distinctly recall learning about the racial barriers to access in schools and hospitals, restaurants and hotels, theaters and community events, and even to water fountains and restrooms. While television news in the early 1960s gave many of us an eyewitness perspective of these realities which was both shocking and sobering, I soon learned that discriminatory practices were not limited to the Deep South but existed throughout the nation.
My preteen memories of seeing those images and hearing the accounts of violence and venomous hatred based upon skin color influenced me to believe that public attention and political action were imperative.
Much has been said and written about the struggle for civil rights, and much is yet to be achieved, but if anyone questions the progress made over the past two generations, let's just watch the oath of office being taken on Tuesday by someone who, because of his ethnicity, just 40-some years ago would have been denied a drink of cold water and a cheese sandwich at many American lunch counters.
Our younger son, Josh, who works in Washington, D.C., for City Year, was given a gift ticket to the inauguration. He knows his eyewitness of this historic event is important and will never be forgotten.
In anticipation of Monday's Dr. Martin Luther King Day celebration and the inauguration Tuesday, I offer this personal reflection:
I was 12 years old in August 1963. I remember my father calling me into his room. The radio was on and I heard cheering. It was not a baseball game kind of cheer. It seemed louder and longer. It was a sustained roar.
My dad, 72 and blind, pointed in the direction of the radio with one hand and put his other index finger to his lips. He was telling me to be quiet and to listen.
Next I heard the voice. A combination of speech and chanting. The cadence was like none I ever heard. The word music rose and fell, the power was like a wave — swelling and then resting, soon to rise again.
My father's blind eyes were shining in the window light. He was tearful, his lips pursed, his head gently nodding in agreement, timed to the melody of the voice. Seeing my father so moved gave me the sense that history was being made.
"I have a dream that one day my four little children will live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
"And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."
Dr. King's monumental speech not only commanded the attention of the half-million who gathered in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln's statue on the Washington Mall, but also touched the hearts and minds of a nation and commanded it to pay attention and take action.
That speech on that sweltering August day ignited a charge of energy that would not be stopped, not by gushing fire hoses, snarling dogs, enraged threats, bombs or snipers' bullets. At the tender age of 35, that eloquent preacher from Atlanta set in motion a flood of individual and collective actions which would change how people viewed not only our neighbors, but ourselves. The impact of that leader's courage was felt in the tumultuous decade of the 1960s and for generations to come.
The ideals of Dr. King's mission were rooted in his Christian faith; his principles and civil disobedience techniques were borrowed from Gandhi. But no matter what our faith, race, ethnicity, gender or age, the heroic vision of Dr. King is a beacon for us all.
Has all that Dr. King envisioned come to pass? Not yet. Has his legacy brought forth a tremendous surge of change in attitude, law and economic opportunity? Yes. But there's so much still to be accomplished. Justice is not static. It's active, and must be actively asserted and strictly guarded.
I've learned that progress is not achieved by intention alone. Strategic advocacy is the only way wrongs can be righted and ideas can be transformed into action. All of our voices and votes are needed.
In memory and in tribute to those who marched, fought and sacrificed for the rights we hold dear, being responsible citizens is one of our highest callings.
Jack Levine is founder of 4Generations Institute in Tallahassee.