Been There, Done That

The last few days have been an interesting opportunity for hope, celebration, and reflection. Yesterday, I participated in the annual Martin Luther King Day activities. Not surprisingly, most of the speakers mentioned the historic occasion that was going to occur today. President Obama’s inauguration is certainly an indication that, although racism hasn’t been completely eradicated, our country’s attitudes have come a long way since the assassination of Dr. King. It is certainly a wonderful tribute to his life’s work to follow his birthday celebration with the inauguration of our first African-American president.

My participation in today’s festivities was less active than yesterday. I watched President Obama’s swearing-in and inauguration speech on television, and caught glimpses of some of the other activities of the day on Internet feeds. Some of my younger and more enthusiastic friends, who live closer to DC, made the trek into the Capital to experience the events “in person” with a couple million of their closest friends. I guess I’ve gotten cynical and jaded in my old age, because I didn’t think fighting crowds and cold weather to watch Obama’s speech on a Jumbotron was preferable to watching it on a large screen in more comfortable and less hectic surroundings.

At one point, I considered it might be like one of my home state’s traditions, the Kentucky Derby, something that needs to be experienced once just so you can say you did. I’ve been to that once, and that was enough. I spent the day surrounded by mobs, most of whom never saw a horse all day. But now I can say I was there. And my friends who made the trek to DC probably saw no more of the ceremony than I did, but they can say they were there. I suppose there’s some satisfaction in that. But like the Derby, doing it once so you can say you did it is good for a lifetime. And I’ve already done an inauguration trip, so I’ve already got my claim to being part of history.

Admittedly, my inaugural participation decades ago was quite different than that of my friends today. 1973, five years after Dr. King’s death, at the height of the Vietnam war that he opposed so passionately, the beginning of Richard Nixon’s second term was not a happy occasion for many. And, like most of the people surrounding me that day, unlike most of those in DC today, I wasn’t there because I was happy. I remember marching through the streets of DC chanting “One two three four, we don’t want your fucking war”. And, a little bit surreal, since my small group had been engulfed by a farm workers’ union crowd, we were also chanting “Boycott Lettuce! Boycott War!”

I suppose, if I was a less negative person, I might think it would be fun to experience another inauguration as an occasion for celebration, rather than an occasion for protest as my last one was. But maybe that’s what yesterday was about. When Dr. King was marching, it was to protest wrongs and demand an end to injustice. For years after his death, that was also the theme of those who carried on his work. But gradually, the focus is changing. While everyone acknowledges that we still have a way to go, MLK Days have become more of a celebration of the progress made as a result of those who came before, and less of an occasion for ongoing protest and anger. So I got my dose of feel-good yesterday, marching with others who shared my appreciation for Dr. King’s work which helped make today possible. I suppose I’m glad that today’s inauguration, like yesterday’s march, has also become a joyous occasion rather than an outcry of outrage. But I didn’t need to be there.

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