Perfect Prelude

January 19, 2009

An email promoted tonight’s showing of vintage film footage from the civil rights movement. The location: a pizza place on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Northeast Portland.

It seemed a fitting way to spend the evening with wife and little boy. So we sat with about fifty people we didn’t know — white, black, Hispanic, and Asian — in the perfect prelude to tomorrow’s presidential inauguration.

Most amazing was a documentary about Dr. King’s life, the first produced by an African American, entitled appropriately enough An Amazing Grace. It’s amazing because all footage is long sequences from newsreels shot during the long struggle. For the first time, I saw and heard context for the countless small clips I’ve seen over the decades.

Behind me sat a small black girl, her eyes wide at the flickering images and sounds of shocking violence and soaring eloquence. Much of what unfolded on the screen happened during my childhood, but I didn’t begin to appreciate its import until the late 1960s when I was in high school.

I came away with a deeper appreciation of the courage displayed by countless African Americans and how King set into motion a revolution. “We are not afraid,” he said many times during the struggle, which reaches an astounding milestone when President Barack Obama takes the oath of office.

Is tomorrow what King saw from the mountaintop?