The inauguration of the first African-American president offers us a unique moment of peace, an occasion of balance and harmony within the democratic process that leads to quiet contemplation. It is a time when we as a nation have the chance to reflect on the distance we have come and the progress we have made toward laying down the separations that divide us.
In his third inaugural address, in 1941, Franklin Roosevelt said, “On each national day of Inauguration since 1789, the people have renewed their sense of dedication to the United States. … In this day the task of the people is … to recall what our place in history has been, and to rediscover what we are and what we may [become].”
On Tuesday, we as a city celebrate with the nation, but the people of Atlanta have a special reason to be proud. For the last 100 years, our city has been at the forefront of change. When others fomented division across the South, there was a coalition of the willing here who locked arms, joined hands, said prayers, and took action. They encircled the city in an invisible ring of hope that held us together during the most difficult hours in our history. And Atlanta became a beacon of light to the rest of the nation.
Out of the ashes of the Civil War and the bonfire of racial hatred that blew up in the riot of 1906, Atlanta decided to rise again determined to build bridges of reconciliation and progress. That is not to say that the legacy of slavery was not and is not still deeply imbedded in our society, as it is throughout the entire nation. Atlanta participated in legalized segregation and racial discrimination, but it also practiced tolerance. And these seeds of peace fell on fertile soil and became a breeding ground for progressive social thought.
Social transformation never requires the sacrifice of every citizen. It only requires the preparation and dedication of a committed few willing to pay the price for progress. It was not every educator, but enough educators who taught the need for equal justice and inspired generations of students to consider the ideas of social progressivism. It was not every businessperson, but enough members of the business community who stepped in across racial lines to offer their resources in times of emergency. It was not every minister, rabbi, or priest, but enough of each who challenged their congregations to open up to people different from themselves. It was not every newspaper, but enough newspapers who published the stories of racial injustice.
It was those same ministers, students, businesspeople and journalists who spread the words of change among their congregations, classmates and colleagues. They, in turn, told their families and neighbors and over time people began to answer the call of conscience. This atmosphere of tolerance, though quiet and behind the scenes, became a breeding ground for powerful leadership.
The city emerged as the unofficial headquarters of the modern-day movement for fundamental change. The March on Washington, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. made his “Dream” speech, could never have been planned in Mississippi or Alabama. The tension there was too great, the hostility too high. There was too much chance that a bullet might break through our window or forces would threaten to burn our meeting place down.
Only within Atlanta’s delicate ring of safety could those kinds of plans be made. Only in the safe haven of Atlanta could we recharge our batteries, relax, create, plan and go back re-energized to the front lines of the movement.
The election of Barack Obama is not an ending. It is not even a beginning. It is the continuation of a struggle begun centuries ago to build a Beloved Community of tolerance and mutual acceptance, a more perfect union of humanity. His election tells us that the silent work of peace and nonviolent action, despite the sacrifice, can make a better way. It tells us that what Atlanta has given and what it has had to give up are all held within the power of this moment. It tells us that we, as a city, are right when we decide to build and not tear down, to love and not hate, to reconcile and not divide. It tells us that the way of nonviolence, professed by a good shepherd —- a son of Atlanta —- really can break the cycle of bitterness and chart a new course to the future, maybe not just for America, but for the entire world.