Here's To Obama and All of Us: We've Come A Long, Long Way!

Feb 18, 2009 | Updated May 25, 2011

Like Frank Rich in Sunday's New York Times, I can't testify to what black Americans feel, as our nation is about to celebrate the inauguration of our first black president. But I can speak for myself as a white American who lived through the civil rights struggle and, as a television newsman, was fortunate to have witnessed a little bit of it first hand.

Like Rich, Obama's day is one that I never thought would come and one that I still can't quite believe is here. For me, the story that climaxes with Tuesday's inauguration began a day or two before Good Friday, April 12, 1963, when I was a field producer for ABC News, covering Martin Luther King's first attempt to desegregate public accommodations in Birmingham, Alabama, a city he called the most segregated in the country.

Culturally speaking, Birmingham in 1963 was a whole lot farther from New York than geographically. My first jarring reminder of that was a huge billboard I saw as I drove in from the airport, proclaiming: "SAVE OUR REPUBLIC, IMPEACH EARL WARREN," a slogan I never would have seen from Manhattan's Henry Hudson Parkway. Warren was then the liberal Chief Justice who led the United States Supreme Court to outlaw public school segregation unanimously in May, 1954 (despite that ruling, Birmingham public schools were still not desegregated when I arrived almost nine years later).

King needed money, news coverage and -- above all -- success in his campaign to desegregate public facilities in Birmingham. And so he turned to confrontation, deciding to violate a court order banning demonstrations. He kicked the protest off at a midday church service, urging followers to personal sacrifice, "just as our Lord made his sacrifice on Good Friday." Then he and a top aide, Ralph Abernathy, led worshippers out of the church and along the short route through Kelly Ingram Park, a small green patch bordering downtown. I watched in awe as elderly people among the hundreds of black bystanders fell to their knees, murmuring "Black Moses, Black Moses," as King passed.

I still remember the clicking of the marchers' heels as they moved into the city's business district, and, just then, the roar of a police motorcycle as it cut in front of King and Abernathy, halting the protest. Without missing a beat, both men went down on their knees in front of the motorcycle and clasped their hands in prayer, as if it were an altar instead of an enemy vehicle. Bull Connor, Birmingham's notorious police commissioner, promptly ordered King, Abernathy and about 50 others to jail in waiting paddy wagons.

It was while he was in custody that King wrote what the U.S. State Department now calls "one of the most extraordinary documents in the history of American thought," his "letter from the Birmingham jail." In it, he replied to Birmingham's white clergymen of all faiths who had accused him of being a troublemaker who should have pursued his goals through the courts, not by law-breaking civil disobedience. The essence of King's reply was this:

"While confined here in the Birmingham City Jail, I came across your recent statement calling our present activities "unwise and untimely"... "Frankly I have never yet engaged in a direct action movement that was 'well timed,' according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word 'Wait!' It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This 'wait' has almost always meant 'never.'

King's letter was much closer to the beginning than the end of the civil rights movement. Soon there were much uglier demonstrations in Birmingham, protests pitting police dogs and fire hoses against children. There were dozens of killings of civil rights workers, black and white. I helped cover the best known of these, the murder of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman (no relation), all shot to death by the Ku Klux Klan with help from Missississippi sheriffs. That story led to my attendance at a Klan rally in Meridian, Mississippi. I was scared, but nothing bad happened.

For King, enormous victories such as the civil rights and voting rights laws resulted from all the anger, protest and bloodshed, and from triumphs such as the March on Washington and another from Selma to Montgomery. Other efforts were unsuccessful, such as his attempts to desegregate Chicago and end the Vietnam War. Then, in Memphis, it ended altogether for Martin Luther King.

But the momentum for racial progress he began has grown progressively stronger over the decades, as racism has steadily weakened. Even George W. Bush's administration, the farthest right in three generations with strength centered in the South, included a number of top minority officials, including two secretaries of state, one of whom served earlier as the president's national security advisor. That's not considered unusual any more. No one even talks about it. And now much, much more. We have a black president.

Remember, when I was covering King in Birmingham, less than half a century ago, the overwhelming majority of black residents couldn't even vote. Only one in four black residents of Alabama was registered. In neighboring Mississippi, the figure was only seven per cent -- and throughout the South, registration figures gave little indication of the number of blacks who actually voted, faced as they were with poll taxes, literacy tests, murder, beatings and arson, among other discouragements.

As Obama is fond of pointing out, this is one of those "only in America" stories. And one, I might add, that has millions of foreigners totally confused. How can they despise George W. Bush's United States, which they quite properly find guilty of warmongering, war crimes, mass murder, torture, serial lying and an imperial desire to control the world if its people choose as his successor a brilliant, charming man of color who is greeted as a hero at home and around the world (a man more than a few of them realize couldn't even have voted for himself, much less run, if he'd lived in one big section of this country as recently as 50 years ago). It's nearly impossible to overemphasize the historic nature of Barack Obama's inauguration.

"America is a land of happy endings," wrote Dore Schary, the late motion picture producer. But he was only talking about in movies. Besides which, Schary died in 1980 and since then it's become much more acceptable for films to end unhappily. In real life, of course, a happy ending has never been guaranteed. Especially when a country is faced with unprecedented economic crisis, two wars and threats of others, worldwide terrorism and dysfunctional government riddled with crony capitalism and corruption that showers benefits on the very rich at everyone else's expense.

That's the country whose course Obama must alter drastically, to onward and upward, full speed ahead. If he can't, a lot more of us will suffer. But, if Thomas Jefferson was right and "all men" not to mention all women "are created equal," or ought to be, we'll still be better off than we were when Martin Luther King went to Birmingham in 1963, and I was lucky enough to be with him.