Today, as the nation celebrates the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., America stands mere hours from his dream becoming reality in the White House, a place built by slaves. "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character," King preached to the multitudes from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on a hot August day in 1963.
Barack Obama, who turned 2 that same month, will take the oath of office Tuesday not because he is an African-American but because American voters judged him to have the qualities they wanted in their next president. Yet when Obama puts his hand on the same Bible used by Abraham Lincoln — the man who saved the union and ended slavery — he will not magically end all racial strife in this country. His election reflects how far America has come even as it has some distance yet to go.
In 1961, the year of Obama's birth, hotels in St. Petersburg continued to refuse to house the New York Yankees' black players — one reason the team left the city and moved its spring training elsewhere. That same year Tampa Bay civil rights icon Ralph Wimbish finally got served at the Maas Brothers lunch counter in downtown St. Petersburg after dignified sit-in protests. Yet 48 years later, Pinellas schools are resegregating and few neighborhoods are integrated.
Obama was only a child as civil rights leaders, growing from a network of black Southern churches, pressed for the same rights as all Americans. Even some within the movement thought King was too young and pushed too hard, too fast. But he was always steadfast about the need to do the right thing, right now.
So it was with Obama's candidacy. Many Democrats initially thought he should wait his turn. But he responded that the fierce urgency of now demanded that he not. It took a victory in ivory-white Iowa's caucuses to convince even many black voters across the country that Obama could win the presidency.
Obama did not grow up in the civil rights milieu of the South. But he benefited from that struggle, as did all Americans. He is of a new generation that sees not limits of yesterday, but the possibilities and potential of tomorrow.
"I love this transition," 76-year-old civil rights activist Roger Wilkins told journalist Gwen Ifill in her new book on politics and race in the age of Obama, "because my generation has done its work. … It did help change the nation. But now we're old and there are people whose path we made possible who see the country very, very differently than we did."
Gov. Charlie Crist wants every Florida public school student to see the inauguration on TV, giving this newest generation an opportunity to see history and to see the possibilities for themselves. For all Americans, it will be a moment to take pride in and to remember.
The day before his assassination, King said, "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. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything."
King, like Lincoln, prodded the nation to seek the better angels of its nature. Two score and one year after he was killed, America will walk a little farther down that path of promise.