On the eve of Barack Obama's inauguration as the first African-American president, history provides an eerie reminder of just how far the nation will have come in its treatment of black Americans.
As the Boston Globe's Michael Kranish writes, when Obama takes the oath on the Capitol steps he "will be standing amid stonework laid by slaves" leased by owners for as little as $13, facing a crowd on the Mall "where slaves were held in pens ready for auction," then enter the White House "where the foundations were laid by slaves and where eight presidents held blacks as human property."
Michelle Obama can be tied even more directly to slavery. Her paternal great-great grandfather was born a slave and lived in a cabin on a South Carolina rice plantation.
A living reminder of more recent U.S. racial divisions, however, will be found among distinguished guests invited by Obama to his swearing-in—some of the surviving 330 Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, whose all-black fighter squadrons were first scorned by white pilots but went on to score major aerial victories.
When the 16,000 black Tuskegee pilots and ground crews were formed largely at the insistence of President Franklin Roosevelt's wife, Eleanor, black Americans still lived under the harsh discrimination of Jim Crow laws that denied them equal housing and lodging, voting and job rights, and equality in the armed forces.
White officers considered blacks lacking the intelligence to be pilots. Some Tuskegee airmen were washed out of training for the flimsiest reasons. And despite wartime victories, they were denied jobs as airline pilots at war's end.
Gradually, they've been honored in recent years with presidential medals for their combat exploits. They also laid the groundwork for black airline pilots and space astronauts.
Their finest hour, of course, will be to see President Obama, an embodiment of the American ideal of quality and the ultimate honor for any American of any color.
Unprecedented in history, Jan. 20 will provide companion lessons for the nation.
First, the election of a black president by popular vote illustrates how wrong a nation was for so many generations in its laws and attitudes because of skin color. Women had to fight for their rights, too. Gay Americans are the current scapegoats trying to overcome invidious bias.
Second, Obama's election also illustrates that a nation can outlive its darkest moods and attitudes and right its wrongs.
The pity is that the awakening takes so long, is so painful and so destructive to the civility and ideals of the American democracy.