New president a sign of hope; a call to action

The United States has a historically inconsistent, hurtful and often tragic relationship with its black citizens, and Barack Obama will be sworn in as its first African-American president on Tuesday.

This is no dream to be awakened from. Obama's victory is reality.

But will that victory be large enough for all to share in? Can Obama's success be a road map for the progress of other black people? Or is Obama an aberration?

The Rev. Willis Polk, pastor of Imani Baptist Church, said he saw the beginnings of change, starting with programs at his own church, before Obama stepped on the national stage.

"There is a spirit at work," he said. "We weren't able to connect the dots and see the bigger picture until Nov. 4."

Before Election Day, Polk said he gave Obama "very little consideration."

In fact, Polk told members of his church's men's group — where scripture, daily concerns and a little politics are discussed — that Obama didn't stand a chance of becoming president.

"I said one of the things Barack will discover is that America is seriously white," Polk recalled saying. "I told them I would like to be proven wrong."

After Obama won a few primaries, Polk saw more and more signs of young people embracing Obama's candidacy, particularly on videos on the Web site He realized there was a movement afoot led by young people and those who had never seen any reason to be vested in America's political process.

"We clearly understood what Michelle Obama meant when she said, 'For the first time in my adult lifetime, I'm really proud of my country,'" Polk said. "There is a turnaround in the thinking. There are windows of opportunity. I see it as a more informed generation."

The Rev. C.B. Akins, pastor of First Baptist Church Bracktown, said he has seen a similar movement, directed by a more powerful conductor.

"I see God's hands in this," Akins said. "It took two wars, eight years of (President George W.) Bush, and a worldwide economic crisis for people everywhere to say we don't know for sure if Barack can make a difference, but we know what we are doing is not working."

Obama's election is causing us to rethink some things, he said.

"The face of America has changed not just because of immigration but because of interracial marriages and the babies," he said. "I've had a colleague whose daughter married a black man say, 'I love my grandbabies.'

"The norm has shifted," Akins said, adding that it is no longer acceptable to say inequality is "just the way it is."

Akins just returned from Spain, where he visited educational facilities where children in preschool were learning three languages. He thinks global pressures — both tangible and intangible — brought about the change in attitude.

"This is a global society," he said. "The world is putting pressure on us to change. We are at the table and don't understand the language.

"I'm not sure America (would have elected a black president) if it were not for worldwide pressure."

So why hasn't this type of success happened before? Why didn't we see this kind of progress after the efforts of Martin Luther King Jr.? Why can't we get those kinds of change in Lexington?

"What we've seen before were pockets of progress," Akins said about Lexington. "What we have had is a constant stream of strong voices, but never a collective strong voice. There was Harry Sykes (a former Lexington City Commissioner) and P.G. Peeples (president and chief executive officer of the Urban League), who has been working at it for 30 years. Others have hit it over and over, but now Barack Obama has galvanized those voices. We have voices from the past and the present, voices of the old and the young. It is a new day."

Polk agreed.

"There have always been visionaries, but there has been a serious disconnect," he said. "The old guard is just about gone now. They worked at it, they had some inkling of what to be about (getting equality) as a community, but getting the job done was tough.

"Now we have folks who have heard more, seen more and are open to more," he said.

Now is the time for black ministers to step up as leaders.

Akins said that locally, "We're not where we ought to be in leading the movement."

Part of the reason we're not is because of hesitancy to support a local leader. According to Akins, part of that hesitance could be the remnants of one of the methods of maintaining order during slavery.

"A maxim of slavery was to have the slaves expend all their energy on survival so there wouldn't be any energy left for creativity," he explained.

Young minorities are no longer interested in just surviving, Akins said. Obama brought together the older generation, which knows the value of the vote, and the younger generation to whom Obama and his whole team exposed the potential value of the collective vote. That voting bloc was awakened and flexed its muscle.

Now what? Where do we go from here? How can we make Lexington and Kentucky more progressive, more in tune with the world?

"We've got to be surrogates for Barack," Akins said. "We've got to get his message and define his message to where it is applicable to where we are and be strong proponents of that message."

Polk plans to challenge people to "get out of the purely celebratory mode. There is work to do. Commit to something. Read a book. Read magazines. Find a project or program to work with.

"I don't think Lexington was in sync with the rest of the country," Polk said. "I think that awareness and level of consciousness has been raised. And I think they now not only look at the news differently, but there is the desire to engage themselves differently. They are not aloof. Now there is a need to express a more radical discipleship."

We as black people must change. We must take a more active role in getting a seat at the table. With Obama in office, our failure falls back only on ourselves. The country, we've learned, is ready for change.

Both Akins and Polk have viable, living churches that are willing to step out of accepted comfort zones onto avenues that lead to progress. Both said there has to be more than excitement and celebration. There has to be a vision.

But with action comes reaction, which isn't always pleasant, Akins said.

"When Kentuckians get on the radio and brag about being the first state to go for McCain, then we have work to do," Akins said. Still, "we must be a responsible voice and we must make sure we see God's hand in it."

We've seen how wonderful it is to make history. Now let's make the future.