Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Content of Our Character

Editor's note: Steve Zurier of Columbia, Maryland contributes this first-hand account of the inauguration in Washington, D.C.

My wife and I took our two teenage sons to the inauguration in Washington, D.C. yesterday and we can proudly say that we were there when Barack Obama brought America together. While this is most certainly a high point in African-American and civil rights history, it is also a great American moment. In the crowd, people didn't care if you were black or white, rich or poor, polished academic or work-a-day construction worker. What mattered was that you had made the trip to celebrate Barack Obama's special victory. What mattered more was the content of your character. Each person, by their mere presence, was making a powerful statement.

The general feeling among the crowd was that of tolerance. And that's tolerance for one another and tolerance for the enormity of what everyone was collectively experiencing. Many people walked up to 10 miles to navigate around D.C. today. The streets were packed and too often at various entry points in the mall the flow of the crowd stopped and people simply had to be patient. But there were few major mishaps. Yes, I saw one man step off a curb and fall and another man passed out from the strain of walking several miles around the city to the mall. Yet, each time someone fell, there were at least two or three people there to pick the person up or attend to the incident. If this is where American is headed count me in. Hopefully the Darwinian era of Republican politics will be replaced by a truly kinder and gentler America. We can only hope.

This most public of ceremonies was also very personal for me. I went to Clifton High School, in nearby North Jersey. When I graduated in 1973, the only black student at the high school was the star running back for the football team. I went from that environment to the melting pot of Livingston College at Rutgers University. Years later, in the 1990s and 2000s, I raised my family in Columbia, Md., the planned city that prides itself on its racial tolerance and diversity.

It is astounding when I think about how far the country has come and how my personal journey reflects this long march toward racial progress and understanding. As a middle and high school student, I knew no black children. But one of my son Ben's teammates on his basketball team was named Kenyatta, after the great Kenyan leader; and at my son Solomon's bar mitzvah a few years ago at least half of the friends he invited were African-American.

The truth is that even the modest social changes my family experienced living in Columbia are far from the norm in our country, but let today's event be a new beginning. For more than 30 years conservatives have held sway in Washington and America is worse off for it. I really believe our new president is just getting started at honing his community organizing skills. Turning around American will take years, not months or days. But I can promise you that the millions who came to celebrate Obama's inauguration can all be counted on to do their share.


Anonymous said...

Nice Piece Steve. Should note that even those that didn’t attend (and are even Republican) were there in hopeful spirit.

I grew up in the segregated south in the late 60’s and 70’s. I remember “colored” and “white” drinking fountains and “whites only” American Legion lakes—not to mention segregated Woolworth’s lunch counters...I went to a middle school that had been segregated only a scant six years before. It was quite a distance from there to here and now...--Mark Rockwell

Anonymous said...

As schools were segregated when I attended both public school and Goucher College, I knew no black people except for household and handy man help. When I graduated college, I had to decide between nursing, teaching and social work, the only professions open to women like me. I chose the latter and began working at the Welfare dept. There I met many black young men and women with both college and master’s degrees. I also met Nathan, my future husband there who was interning for his master’s degree. We had many black as well as white friends and attended many parties. We could not go out to dinner with them because no restaurant would admit them. If we wanted to celebrate an occasion or retirement, we needed to go to the somewhat shabby and limited Pennsylvania station restaurant. Because it was a Federal facility our friends were allowed to eat there.

When we got married at the Belvedere Hotel, we invited our black friends. I called the hotel to question their policy and was told that they could not mingle in the lobby or use the bathrooms. My brother-in-law stayed in the lobby to troubleshoot, if necessary. As I recall, there were no problems.

As I watched these glorious moments November 4th and yesterday, I was overwhelmed with joy, but also sadness that these moments took so long. I cried with both happiness and in empathy with what the black population endured in this country.

Thanks, Steve for your account of yesterday. -- Beverly Nackman

Anonymous said...

I, along with two co-workers went to the Senator Theater in Baltimore to watch this historic event. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of parents who brought their young children to experience this. There were approximately 1000 people in the theater and it was electrifying. I felt like I was there, only warmer. I left the theater with a sense of renewal. For me, this is more than history, it is a rebirth of government. I am proud to say I work for President Obama!

One note on a term used by many today (including President Obama). Many people use the term "tolerance" when referring to race relations or sexual orientation or other differences. I was introduced to the following distinction several years ago and I share it with you today. I ask you to consider changing "tolerance" to "acceptance." "Tolerance" means we are "willing to put up" with something. Whereas, "acceptance" has a much more positive meaning - "favorable reception." I believe "acceptance" better defines what we are really feeling - we accept and appreciate the differences of all those around us whether it be race, nationality, religion, gender, or sexual orientation (or any other difference).

With love and acceptance!-- Michele Knorr

Anonymous said...

Hi Steve and gang,
Great article.
It will indeed be a day that will be etched in your minds forever.

Anonymous said...

Steve, thanks for your heartfelt post. My family and I were discouraged by the prospect of the crowds, the cost and the logistical challenges from joining you in DC.

I was however able to be part of the inauguration ceremony. Along with millions, I was part of the televisual extension of the Mall into homes, offices and public places around the country as I watched on a big screen under the dome of the Rhode Island Statehouse. There, part of a smaller physical crowd, I felt nonetheless a participant in the coming together of America the inauguration created. Just the cadences of President Obama's speech were enough to give me a tingle of joy.

I, too grew up and came of age in the 1960s & 70s in a nearly all white environment where the focus of our prejudices was among competing ethnic groups. The zeitgeist worked its magic on me, though and throughout the ensuing decades planted the desire that we could all be one. We have taken a giant step now in that direction. I wish could say that I always knew that it was coming.

How long it has taken, how much farther there is to go.

Again, Steve, thanks for sharing your experience.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the inspiring message. What a great experience to be down there with your whole family.
We grew up with our very close cousins relaying stories of hiding behind the couch, bullets flying through the front window, their house bombed 3 times. My uncle was a white pastor of an all black Lutheran Church in Montgomery Alabama in the mid 50s. He worked directly with Dr. King. Their next door neighbor was Rosa Parks, who led an NAACP youth group out of their church. For supporting the bus boycott, they incurred the wrath of white supremacists. Bob and Jeanie are now 80, and working with a civil rights center at University of Alabama. It was a proud day for so many, the culmination of life work to change this country for the better. And yes, we are so hopeful for a better day in this country, from the nightmare of the last 8 years and more.
Best to both of you - Richard & Vanessa Deutschmann