Opinion Columns & Blogs

January 17, 2009

Changing our icons

Upon signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Lyndon Johnson, the 36th president of the United States, a Democrat, reportedly said, "We have lost the South for a generation."

A true Texan, LBJ had a penchant for hyperbole, but in this case, he underestimated the price the Democrats would pay for outlawing racial segregation.

As he takes the oath of office as the 44th president Tuesday, four and a half decades after that law's passage, Barack Obama knows that, with few exceptions, he was not the choice of the old South.

One of the states he did win, Florida, is populated mostly with transplants from other parts of the country; another, Virginia, was compromised by proximity to Washington, D.C., and wasn't part of "real" America, as defined by Sarah Palin.

Neither the law that banned separate waiting rooms and drinking fountains nor the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the other key civil rights legislation of the time, was the subject of significant discussion during last year's election.

Indeed, few Americans under the age of 50 can recall the Jim Crow South, Brown vs. Board of Education or Alabama Gov. George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door to protest school integration. And if it weren't for the fact that his birthday is a holiday for federal, state and most local governments, citizens younger than 50 would know little about Martin Luther King Jr.

Observers predict the turnout for Obama's inauguration will rival the throngs that joined the historic 1963 March on Washington. Among the hundreds of thousands -- if not millions -- who fill the National Mall this week will be people who were there 46 years ago when King gave his "Dream" speech.

The dream that Dr. King shared seems modest enough today. He didn't dare dream aloud that America one day would elect a black president. It was enough for him to dream that one day little black children and little white children could play together without regard to their skin color.

If America's fascination with the First Family holds to form, we'll hear a lot about Barack and Michelle Obama's daughters. Their quest for a dog has captivated the media, and one can only imagine the frenzy that will accompany the first pizza, first sleepover, first dance recital and -- yuck -- first boyfriend.

Vanessa Williams of The Washington Post put it this way: "If a black president represents change, a dark-skinned first lady is straight-up revolutionary. ... She is a real life Claire Huxtable! But the true breakthrough here is that sisters who look like Michelle Obama seldom become cultural icons, aesthetic trendsetters -- a proxy for the all-American woman."

For those readers too young to remember "The Cosby Show," Claire Huxtable was played by Phylicia Rashad. When "The Cosby Show" was at its peak during the 1980s, I wrote a column about how the sitcom broke ground because it portrayed a family of black professionals as a typical -- albeit well-to-do -- American family. Back then, that was ground-breaking.

Now, America will have its first black First Family -- a real family, not one scripted in Hollywood. What impact that will have on this nation and on a world even more fascinated by a black U.S. president than we are can only be imagined.

Among the more intriguing aspects of the Obama presidency are parallels already being drawn between the next president and John F. Kennedy. Like Obama, Jack Kennedy was a slender, handsome, young U.S. senator who burst onto the national political scene overnight. Like JFK, Obama is a skilled orator known for his inspiring eloquence.

Nor is it a coincidence that Michelle Obama frequently is compared to Jackie Kennedy. They are similar: Beautiful, stylish, witty, intelligent. ... Many Americans remember Mrs. Kennedy's televised tours of the White House. Oprah must be chomping at the bit to revive that tradition.

Ironically, Barack Obama polled best among Americans under 30, who know little about the Camelot days of the Kennedy White House, but fared worst among those over 65, who remember like it was yesterday.

To paraphrase Bob Dylan, the bard of the latter generation, "Icons, they are a'changin'."

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