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January 23, 2009

REV. JOSEPH LOWERY: We ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around — (laughter) — when yellow will be mellow — (laughter) — when the red man can get ahead, man — (laughter) — and when white will embrace what is right.Let all those who do justice and love mercy say amen.




BILL MOYERS: A headline in Europe proclaimed "the United States of Obama." And all over the planet, newspapers focused on the symbolism and unifying power of President Obama's arrival on the world stage. "The Sun", in London, showed seven-year-old Sasha giving her father the thumbs-up, with the caption, "You're the Daddy."

INAUGURATION ANNOUNCER: The President-elect of the United States, Barack H. Obama.

BILL MOYERS: Sure enough, this greatest of all our civic rituals creates the sense of a family reunion, America, as extended family and those of us fortunate to be around this week will remember the sight until we're gone. For a moment, history becomes poetry, and poetry democracy, and...

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

BILL MOYERS: We are empowered to think beyond ourselves, to imagine the more perfect union for which this compact was forged.

But as Obama himself reminded us Tuesday, stubborn facts crouch just offstage, waiting to pounce. We return to a minefield of tripwires ready to ensnare our hopes and dreams.

By chance, Tuesday evening I came upon some of those stubborn facts, in this issue of "Sojourners" magazine.

For the first time in history, more than one in every 100 adults in America is in jail or prison that's 2.3 million people. One reason? The leader of one organization working with prisoners' families told "Sojourners" that "The education system, particularly for inner-city youth where the bulk of our prisoners come from, is abysmal."

That statement sent me looking for a copy of Barack Obama's memoir "Dreams from My Fathe". I had met Obama just once, many years ago, when he was a community organizer in Chicago. Later, when I first read his book, I had been impressed that he was writing about what we had talked about the day of our visit. Here's the passage that stood out, describing his experience coming back to Chicago after his graduation from Harvard Law School:

"Upon my return to Chicago, I would find the signs of decay accelerated throughout the south side, the neighborhoods shabbier, the children edgier and less restrained, more middle-class families heading out to the suburbs, the jails bursting with glowering youth, my brothers without prospects. All too rarely do I hear people asking just what it is that we've done to make so many children's hearts so hard, or what collectively we might do to right their moral compass, what values we must live by. Instead I see us doing what we've always done, pretending that these children are somehow not our own."

That's the reality, crouched at Obama's door. Our door. Far too many members of this extended family, locked away, poor and in prison. So think of Chicago's South Side as a metaphor for our country today, a post-inaugural reminder, one of those stubborn facts of millions abandoned by the very democracy we celebrated on Tuesday.

All those years ago, I thought, this young man Obama had seen the world as it is. If he is not swallowed into the belly of the beltway beast, devoured by the conceits of power, the temptations of empire, and the courtiers, climbers, and predators who feed on it and if he can make this a family affair, he just might begin to change what he saw.

That's it for this week. Next week, Vartan Gregorian, a leader in the fight to save public education. And on our website at, find out more about President Obama's first days in office and tell us what you'd like to see on the new White House agenda. I'm Bill Moyers.

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