When I was about 10 years old I traveled to Florida with my mother to visit relatives and encountered the realities of racism and segregation for the first time. This was the mid-fifties, when schools and buses were segregated, there were white-only drinking fountains, and even "separate but equal" was an idea whose time had not yet come. It's not an overstatement to say I was shaken by the experience. I came home and wrote an essay on it for school, and the memory of those things was a large part of what I took away from the trip.
When I went to college, the Civil Rights movement was just starting in the South and on campuses – this was the era of sit-ins, church bombings, police in schoolhouse doors, fire hoses and dogs, and Freedom Riders, and of a young, electrifying preacher from Atlanta called Martin Luther King, Jr. The year I graduated, 1964, two things happened: a fellow Cornellian, Mickey Schwerner, was killed along with Andrew Cheney and James Goodman in Mississippi and Dr. King called for a march on Washington and a rally at the Lincoln Memorial. I was working in a hotel in the Catskills at the time, and was desperate to go to on the march, but could not. I watched and listened as Dr. King spoke of his dream – of an America where people would be judged "not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."
On Tuesday, January 20, 2009, Dr. King's dream will become a reality. Whatever your race, whether your people came over on the Mayflower, in the hold of a slaver, across the Rio Grande, or through Ellis Island, whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, a conservative or a liberal, whether you think Barack Obama is the answer to a prayer or the second best of two candidates, Tuesday, January 20, 2009, is a day when everyone in America can be proud, a day that history will mark as an inflection point – a point after which nothing will ever be the same – we've had a few of those – July 4, 1776, January 1, 1863, October 29, 1929, December 7, 1941, September 11, 2001, to name a few – and 1/20/09 is one we can be proud to add to that list. Dr. King's dream is fulfilled.