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At Last… Reflections on historic moment in the nation’s capital

By Dwight Mullen

Dwight Mullen

Dwight Mullen

As I sat on the Lincoln Memorial that cold January day, when the first African American president took the oath of office, I was inspired to ask, “If this is possible, what else can we achieve as a people and as a nation?”

For some odd reason, no one was near me. I sat with my legs dangling off the edge of the monument as history was made. The jumbotron clearly showed Aretha in “that hat.” The enormity of the moment struck me when I remembered something my son said: “Papa, you know it’s over when the fat lady sings.”

“The poet’s words were deeply meaningful, but the stanza I remember was her reference to the “hands that picked cotton and lettuce.”

My memory is spotty and incomplete. Emotions tend to cloud my thinking. The controversy over the participation of the conservative preacher seemed overblown after listening to his thoughtful invocation. The poet’s words were deeply meaningful, but the stanza I remember was her reference to the “hands that picked cotton and lettuce.” My personal highlight reel continues with a feeling of beauty inspired by the classical music performance. Then the oath of office was bungled by two men, who happen to be in my own age group, standing on the national stage at a historic moment. And, just as I might do, they blew the simplest recitation of the program, as the Chief Justice stumbled on the constitutionally mandated oath of office, while Obama’s eyes twinkled with “oops.”

I listened carefully to the president’s well-crafted speech for any lines that history might note. I also listened because the next day I was scheduled to respond at the Carnegie Library before an audience of peers and professionals. I wanted to be profound and informed as I offered an analysis of what had occurred. Speculation on the new President’s first One Hundred Days seemed appropriate.

But before I could take notes, the crowd of 2 million had hushed. The stillness reminded me of church. President Obama spoke to Muslims, Christians, conservatives and liberals. He spoke to citizens in their living rooms and to the world. It felt like a new day had dawned. But my tears did not come until Rev. Lowery gave the benediction. My reaction was, “Did he just say what I thought he said?” I knew it would be understood by African Americans. He recited the first stanza of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” or as it was called when I was a child, “The Negro National Anthem.”

Lift every voice and sing,

till earth and Heaven ring,

Ring with the harmonies of liberty;

Let our rejoicing rise, high as the listening skies,

Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.

Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,

Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;

Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,

Let us march on till victory is won.

It was totally appropriate. That song represents the hope of black people for decades and centuries. It is a hope embodied in President Barack Obama. But would he live up to such high expectations? What will his first One Hundred Days include? At the time, no one could answer these questions. We could, though, see that this would be like no other White House. The inaugural balls lasted through much of the night. At each one the President and First Lady seemed to fit smoothly into their new roles. People were wowed and cameras flashed. But Beyonce said it best, “At Last . . .” as Barack and Michelle danced.

Dwight Mullen, Ph.D., is professor of Political Science at UNC Asheville

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