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January 21, 2009
Column #1,430
"A New Era of Responsibility"
by Mike McManus

WASHINGTON - I've reported in this city for 45 years, and never witnessed an event as momentous and era-changing as the Inauguration of President Barack Hussein Obama.

Martin Luther King Jr. preached in 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial, "I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

Taking the oath of the Presidency stood a man judged not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character. Interestingly, however, Obama made no reference to King, wisely and humbly letting others do so instead.

However, everyone understood the transcendental nature of the moment. How else to explain nearly 2 million people gathered on the Mall, stretching two miles from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial - and their extraordinary excitement "to be a part of history?"

Ken Burns, the PBS documentary historian of America, sees Obama as launching a third American era. "The first began with Jefferson's `All men are created equal,.' which did not refer to black people. The second was Lincoln's "new birth of freedom," that ended slavery.

However, as King declared at the Lincoln Memorial, "One hundred years later, the Negro still is not free." and "lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity."

I grew up in the segregated South. Blacks who traveled to hear King from Texas through Virginia could not sleep in a Holiday Inn or eat in a white restaurant.

Lyndon Johnson pushed through a Civil Rights Law and the Voting Rights Act that ended legal segregation and ultimately enabled millions of African Americans to enter the middle class.

However, it was the brilliance of Barack Obama, a former community organizer, who enlisted 13 million mostly young people to fight for his election. He emailed them a few weeks ago, urging volunteers to serve the needy in one of 5,000 projects on King's 80th birthday, and more than a million did so.

His Inaugural Speech outlined grim challenges facing the country: "Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened...Homes have been lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered."  And on the day he spoke, the stock market plunged another 4% of its total value.

However to conquer the "raging storms" of war and economic turmoil, he did not dwell on legislative remedies but called on all Americans to pitch in: Obama asserted, "We must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again to work of remaking America. For everywhere we look, there is work to be done."

A day earlier, with Martin Luther King III, Obama visited 14 wounded patients injured in Iraq or Afghanistan. Next, he painted the wall of a shelter for homeless youth.

Obama devoted a half sentence to Iraq.  Though he is proposing a nearly trillion dollar stimulus plan, he hardly mentioned it. Instead he noted, "As much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people on which this nation rests. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose a job which sees us through our darkest hours.

"What's required of us now is a new era of responsibility - a recognition on the part of every American that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task."

Millions of Americans are already volunteers, but mostly in church work - not serving the most needy.  Obama inspires new initiatives.  At the Youth Ball, where 2,000 celebrating were aged 18 to 25 years, the President asserted, "We know that young people everywhere are in the process of imagining something different than what has come before.  Where there is war, they imagine peace.  Where there is hunger, they imagine being able to feed everyone.

"The future is in your hands if you are able to sustain the kind of energy and focus that you showed on the campaign, I promise you that America will get stronger and more united.. And you are going to make it happen!"

The Obama volunteer era has begun. His campaign is being transformed into a participatory movement.
 

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