Happy Martin Luther King Day everyone. I know, the official holiday is tomorrow, but today is the actual day. And every so often, MLK Sunday is aligned with January 20th, the Presidential Inauguration Day, which is why President Obama will be the only Prez to take the oath of office 4 times!
Last time he said the words “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States” twice because a fledgling Justice named Roberts mixed up the “faithfully execute” part. There should be no tripping over the words this time, since the charming pair of oaths will be executed today in a private ceremony and then again tomorrow for public consumption.
But this is only the 7th time in history a President has been sworn in on a Sunday, making the alignment of this particular President with MLK Day historical in another way. When President Obama said that a mere sixty years ago his father “…might not have been served” at a restaurant a block from where he was standing, I had one of those Aha moments.
My nephew grew up in Memphis. One of his first writing assignments was about asking his mother what a certain sign meant over a water fountain, the sign said “Whites Only.” The Flapper was visiting at the time and copied that paper and sent it to me. I was in college, in Boston in 1968, when Dr King was shot. I marched on the state capital for the first time with a black armband, but I had never personally witnessed the kind of apartheid our country was carrying out on so many different levels.
I lived most of my young life in New Jersey, I still had not experienced teaching at a Head Start Preschool in the projects of Jersey City (now colloquially called ‘public housing’). I, like most of us back then, didn’t even know any African Americans precisely because we were separated in a not-so-subtle way, by schools and geography. There were no blatant signs of racism in the north, like the water fountain sign in Memphis, but ignorance could only take us so far after seeing women and children being attacked by dogs, bombs exploding in churches, and the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King.
You were wrong Mr President, it wouldn’t have been sixty years ago that your Kenyan father may not have been able to sit down in a certain restaurant in DC. King was gunned down less than fifty years ago in April. He was still tirelessly working for social justice even though the Civil Rights Act had been passed 4 years before his death, and wasn’t fully enacted by the states until the late 1970s.
This weekend makes it personal for me. For the first time in my sixty plus years I came face to face with a sign in an antique shop. It was a Pennsylvania Railroad sign welcoming passengers to VA. I felt sick, wondering who would buy such a thing. Bob said we should never forget, and I know that he’s right. Living in the south now makes it all the more personal. Congratulations Mr President, know that we all admire and respect you…and that Martin would be so very proud