Monday, January 19, 2009


She was one of the thousands of people who stood in cold weather at Union Station, waiting for the Obama Express, the train on a whistlestop tour bringing the next President of the United States of America to Washington for his inaugural on Tuesday. She was from Little Rock, Ark., a city with its own grim intersection with history, and she brought her son, a fourth-grader studying the U.S. Constitution.

“What are you thinking of today?” one of the cable reporters asked.

“Today,” she said, “I think of the people who laid the track for this train.”

She was there on Sunday, the day before observance of the Martin Luther King holiday, and by today, Monday, maybe another million Americans had arrived — at Union Station or the area’s airports. Monday was widely promoted as a day of national service: chipping in with beautification projects, community outreach events, food-bank assistance, volunteering and mentoring.

It’d be easy to dismiss it as a stunt riding on the back of history, as a collectivist, Utopian gesture at odds with American sensibilities. But the call to service — made by President-elect Obama and in the populist spirit of King — is certainly something more. It may be, among other things, the start of the Obama transformation of the country’s floor of expectations — a shift in its perception of volunteerism, a move away (if only for a while) from the materialism that’s brought us, in many ways, to where we are economically today.

While much of the nation continued a focus on the Obama future, many looked back at the past. For African Americans the day of the observance, the day before history, it’s natural to think of the people who laid the track for Obama’s train, the pioneers like King and untold others who led the way in dangerous times.

And there’s something to be said for representin’. For just being on location. For millions of the people visiting Washington, after years of disconnection with a government that had long since disconnected from them, the act of being there is valuable. They won’t be handing out food at a shelter and cleaning up a park.

Btu they’re there, in Washington, from Little Rock and everywhere else in the nation, there to represent hope, to physically embody that thumbs-up to the future that defines us, as a people and as a nation. On a day of national service, that’s another way of pitching in.
Image credit: Martin Luther King: (immediate source)

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