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Inauguration: An historic occasion

The inauguration of the President of the United States is always an historic occasion, but when Barack Obama is sworn in today as our 44th president and our first African-American president it will be especially so. It was only 152 years ago that two days after administering the oath of office to our 15th president, James Buchanan, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered the opinion of the Supreme Court in the case of Dred Scott v Sanford. Among other things, the Court ruled that African-Americans were not citizens of the United States. Thus when Chief Justice John Roberts administers the oath of office to Senator Obama it will symbolize the dramatic change our nation has achieved. To many people 152 years seems a long time, but in the sweep of history it is just an instant. It was only 141 years ago that African-Americans were made citizens of the United States by the 14th Amendment. It was less than 100 years ago that the 28th president, Woodrow Wilson, ordered the segregation of many federal offices and government facilities in Washington, D.C. It was just 55 years ago that the Jim Crow laws were declared unconstitutional and even more recently that black elected and appointed officials have become prominent in all levels of government. Anyone born at the beginning of the 20th century would probably find today’s inauguration astonishing. Even to someone born in the middle of that century it is surprising. In less than one life time, in a little more than half a century, African-Americans have moved from second class citizenship to the Oval Office. Therefore, one thing we should do today besides congratulating President Obama is something we have done far too seldom as a nation lately, and that is congratulate ourselves. While race relations in the United States are far from perfect, they have obviously come a long way. The inauguration of our first African-American president is momentous in and of itself, but the timing of Obama’s ascension to power makes it even more dramatic. The United States currently faces difficult foreign policy issues as well as the most significant economic crisis since the Great Depression. More hope has been invested in President Obama than any other president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt and in fact there are some similarities between the two. Both campaigned on a platform of hope and change. Both had dynamic personalities and promised bold action. However, neither provided many specifics as to what form that action would take. When FDR became president he discovered that hard economic and political realities were far less susceptible to his rhetoric and charm than were American voters. We can only hope the President Obama will be more successful. And in the end it will be the success or failure of the Obama administration that determines how historic today’s inauguration becomes. In 1947 Jackie Robinson became the first African-American major league baseball player of the modern era. In 1997 Major League Baseball retired his number 42 jersey across the league. There is not a single serious baseball fan and probably very few casual ones who do not know who Jackie Robinson was. Part of the reason for this is that he broke baseball’s color line, but it is also because of the skill and grace with which he played the game and conducted his life. Had Robinson come to the majors, played a couple of mediocre seasons and disappeared, he would be little more than a sports footnote. If President Obama fails to fulfill the hopes invested in him, he may 100 years from now, be like Benjamin Harrison or Chester Arthur, namely a president whose name college history students cannot recall. Dr. Don Butts is a professor of history at Gordon College in Barnesville. Editors Note: The above article was written by Don Butts, a professor of history in the business and social science department at Gordon College.

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