I think I was probably witness last Tuesday to one of the biggest, loudest and most enthusiastic gatherings of Obama inauguration-watchers anywhere in the world.
I was in the Boutwell Auditorium in Birmingham, Alabama, with between 5,000 and 6,000 black Alabamans who were there to celebrate the inauguration of a man who – to use the phrase I heard over and over again – “looks like us”.
The southern state of Alabama has two main claims to fame: it was, from before the days of the American Civil War, a bastion first of slavery and then of segregation and racism, where blacks weren’t regarded as second class citizens, but as non-citizens. And then, in the 1950s and 60s, it became the cradle of the civil rights movement: where Martin Luther King preached non-violence, and where the segregationists made their last stand.
The Boutwell Auditorium itself tells its own story: in 1948, it hosted the States Rights Democratic Convention, at which Southern Democrats – the “Dixiecrats” – broke away from the national party in protest at its commitment to “human rights” over states’ rights. And in 1956, the black singer Nat King Cole was attacked on stage by white assailants while performing to a whites-only audience.
It was so very different on Tuesday. Giant TV screens beamed the pictures from Washington as Barack Hussein Obama took the oath of office to become the 44th US President. (No one in Birmingham seemed to mind, by the way, that he got the words slightly muddled.) You know that cliché – “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house”? There wasn’t.
“It was like being released from a prison,” said the veteran civil rights campaigner Gwen Gamble on our programme that night. “We had been in bondage, we had been denied certain rights, and none of us thought this would happen in our lifetime.” (If you missed our programme from Alabama, you can still listen to it via the website – and you can also find a link to some pictures from my trip.)
Do you remember when Obama first emerged as a possible Presidential candidate? The pundits wondered whether blacks would really vote for him. After all, his mother was white, his father was Kenyan, and he grew up mainly in Hawaii. He wasn’t exactly a “typical” black American. None of that mattered: “he looks like us.”
And in any case, he’s not just been elected President of black America – he couldn’t have won the election if only blacks had supported him. (But note this: in Alabama, only one-tenth of white voters supported him – and whites make up three-quarters of the total state population.)
I met one young white activist who told me that Obama as President is a “deviation”, that he is a Marxist, and that America must remain a “European” (ie white) nation. Was he typical of white Alabamans? Perhaps not, but the fact remains that most white southerners did not vote for Obama.
Of course, there is much more to the Obama presidency than the fact that he is black. In the fullness of time he will be judged, to use the words of Martin Luther King, not by the colour of his skin but by the content of his character.
Yet, if you’re black and if you were born and brought up in the deep South, with its history of segregation and oppression, to see someone in the White House who looks like you is a very big deal. In the Boutwell Auditorium on Tuesday, I watched as a 10-year-old schoolboy told the crowd: “I am proud of Barack Obama. I am proud that he is an African-American – like me.” That’s why I saw so many black Alabamans crying as the new President took the oath of office.
They know it won’t be easy. They know nothing will change overnight. He’s told them that himself. But however longs it takes, and however hard it is, they also know that he will always look like them.