Well, it was a heck of a thing, wasn't it? I don't care what your color, creed, political persuasion, college football allegiance or sexual preference is - the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States confirmed what most of us have known for a long, long time. The United States of America is unique among all the nations on earth, and in the history of the world. What happened in Washington, D.C., just before noon on Tuesday, given all the variables and potential scenarios for a different outcome, could not have happened anywhere else in the world.
I have never been more proud to be an American.
Obviously, throughout the day's coverage, there was a heavy focus on the fact that Barack Obama is the first black president. Throughout the weekend the media paid homage to the many African-Americans who helped pave the way for Obama. Frederick Douglass was mentioned frequently. Douglass, of course, was the eloquent writer and lecturer who escaped slavery and then went back and reimbursed his former masters for his freedom, lest he always be looking over his shoulder in fear of capture. He was one of the first black men to dispel the myth that those of his race were intellectually inferior and uneducable.
Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, Thurgood Marshall, Barbara Jordon - and of course, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. - all received a lot of well-deserved air time. All of these people were pioneers who put their lives on the line to affect changes in this country - changes in the Constitution, changes in the laws, and changes in the attitudes of Americans. Each of these brave and heroic people deserve the accolades they have received, and without their sacrifice and hard work and determination, Tuesday's remarkable events would not have been possible.
But as I watched the events of the day unfold, there were other brave heroes on my mind - none of whom are household names and none of whom the national media has ever heard of.
I thought of Gay Hurst, who must have been scared to death on that September day in 1966 when she walked into a previously all-white Newton County High School to take her seat in Deanna Anglin's homeroom. Thanks to Mrs. Anglin's alphabetical seating chart, she wound up right behind Darrell Huckaby and right in front of Jimmy Hutchins. That would have been scary for anybody.
I thought of Sandra Hollingsworth, who along with Gay Hurst was in virtually all my classes for four years, and I thought of Kenneth Hardeman. We called him K.O. A group of us tried to toss him through a basketball hoop in P.E. one day - with his blessing, understand. We thought it would be a great tumbling trick, but he flipped the wrong way in midair and landed on his head. We thought we'd killed him at first.
As I watched Barack Obama prepare to be sworn in, I thought about Bobby Gene Kelly who had the audacity to believe he could join the same NCHS Key Club as future Drug Enforcement Agent Fred Alexander. Jim Peay couldn't even get in, and he was president of the student body!
Leroy Goodman came to mind. Leroy was the first black person to graduate from Newton County High School. He wound up living right up the road from me and his daughter, Nicole, and my daughter, Jamie Leigh, have been close friends since middle school. I wouldn't have ever believed that possible in 1966. Nicole is a student at Central Florida now. She worked hard for Barack Obama's election and Jamie thinks she might have been in Washington on Tuesday.
I hope she was.
And when Pastor Rick Warren prayed about the "great cloud of witnesses" that was watching over the inauguration, I thought of Willie Gilstrap.
Willie Gilstrap played basketball at Rockdale County High School back in the day when black folks just didn't play with - or against - white folks. I watched first-hand for three years as he endured racial taunts and bullying and all manner of abuse from opposing players and fans who resented the fact that Willie Gilstrap - from the same era of "freedom of choice" integration as Gay Hurst and Sandra Hollingsworth and Bobby Gene Kelly and Leroy Goodman - had the audacity to want to play basketball at Rockdale.
In the dozen or so games I saw Willie play in person, I never saw him lose his temper or react in any way to the abuse he received. He just played the game he loved, which is all he signed on to do in the first place. I am sure he didn't see himself as a pioneer, but he was, and earned more respect from those who were previously against him than he could have ever imagined.
That's how change occurs, you know - one opinion at a time.
So I hope that President Obama does a stellar job, in part, because the country needs for him to do a stellar job, but also because he owes it to people like Willie Gilstrap.
Darrell Huckaby is a local author and educator. He can be reached at dHuck08@bellsouth.net.