Friday, November 21, 2008

Road to the White House

                     Louis outside the Smithsonian "Castle"

Amid the excitement of Barack Obama's election as the next president, I managed to miss one poignant coincidence: America voted for its first black leader on the 40th anniversary of the assassination of its greatest black leader to date, Dr Martin Luther King Jr. That quirk of timing was underlined at a moving exhibition we chanced upon this week about the civil rights movement that ultimately set Obama on his path to the White House. 

In the depths of one of the lesser known Smithsonian institutions, the International Museum, is a photo exhibition called Road to Freedom, graphically charting a struggle for equality that started with Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and ended with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1968, the last of the three great legislative milestones of the 1960s civil rights movement. It's hard, today, to imagine a world where Louis's grandparents couldn't have gone to school with our great friend Nikki's, Mum; or where I couldn't have sat on a bus with my news editor, Peter, let alone sat next to him at work. But that was the reality of life just one generation ago. 

The photos told the story of the largely peaceful battle for basic human rights in graphic and tear-jerking detail. Among the most memorable was one showing a motel owner in Florida, a state that just voted for Obama, pouring chemicals into a swimming pool to try and get rid of the blacks protesting their right to be there. Another depicted the hatred etched on the faces of a white female mob taunting Elizabeth Eckford, who made history by becoming the the first black student to integrate a major southern high school in Little Rock, Arkansas. Then there were the many shots of a young Jesse Jackson, who would survive to become a veteran of the civil rights movement; little wonder he shed so many tears during Obama's acceptance speech in Grant Park on 4 November. 

The exhibition was the perfect preamble to another Louis and I visited yesterday at the City Museum about the 1968 race riots in DC. Again, how amazing to think that just one generation ago a city - America's capital - was ripped apart by black versus white antipathy sparked by Dr King's assassination and yet in two months exactly a black man will be sworn in as president. I'm not sure Louis quite appreciates the tumultuous events going on around him, but it's nice to think that one day he will.

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