Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: State's black leaders never expected to see this day

LOUISVILLE — It has almost become a cliché these past few weeks: African-Americans, especially older ones, say they never expected to see this day come. They never expected to see a black president of the United States.

After all, this country has from its beginning been divided, obsessed and limited by race. Now that perhaps the most symbolic of glass ceilings has been shattered, what does it mean for the future?

That was much on the minds of 100 or so people who gathered Monday at the Urban League offices in Louisville's West End to watch on a big television screen as Barack Obama took his oath of office.

They were black and white, old, young and everything in between. They cheered, they cried — and they hoped.

"I never dreamed I would ever see this," said Georgia Powers, the first woman and first African-American to be elected to the Kentucky Senate. "The blacks who helped build the White House were slaves. And just to think that there's an African-American who's the leader in the White House is just amazing. It's just almost unbelievable."

Powers, 85, is a civil rights legend. She had been sick recently, and she had planned to stay home and watch the inauguration alone. She was afraid she might cry.

As a state senator in the 1960s, Powers was the driving force behind Kentucky's passage of some of the South's first civil rights laws, banning discrimination in housing and public accommodation. She and Martin Luther King Jr. were close associates and, as she later revealed in her autobiography, lovers. When he was assassinated in Memphis in 1968, she was among those there with him.

Powers sees the work she and countless others did as paving the way for Obama and a new generation of people of all races to be able to work together to tackle society's problems.

"I just love these young people, because they don't see color the way the older people did," she said. "It makes a big difference. It's waking up the older generation, too. These younger people are teaching the older generation some things."

Powers' thoughts and emotions were shared by many others, including Leonard Lyles, who in the mid-1950s became the first black scholarship football player at the University of Louisville. "I'm just really pleased, really happy," he said. "I hope I don't cry."

Walter Hutchins, 78, who was an activist with the Congress of Racial Equality in Philadelphia in the 1960s, summed up Obama's election this way: "Evidence of possibility."

Champagne glasses of grape juice were handed out, and as Obama finished his oath, there were cheers and toasts. As Obama's inaugural address was shown on the big screen, the crowd sat spellbound amid occasional murmurs of "yes" and "amen." Many wiped away tears.

"We have begun to cross that great divide in our country," said Benjamin Richmond, the Urban League's president. "We still have got a lot of problems to work on. Racism is still high. But we're getting there. We are getting there by leaps and bounds."

Many said Obama's inauguration meant not so much that African-Americans have arrived, but that they are now able to join this nation's great journey as an equal partner.

"It felt like the whole world stood still for a moment, and something had changed," said D'Shawn Johnson, an Urban League officer. "If America was a stock, I would go out and buy some."