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Inauguration Marks Generational, Racial Turning Point

Barack Obama's inauguration marks a turning point for the civil rights movement. Experts mull the event's significance and how it may shift the conversation over race in America.

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    Martin Luther King, Jr., would have been 80 years old had he lived to see tomorrow's inauguration of the 47-year-old Barack Obama. The arc of that journey resonates loudly today.

    Joining us to talk about that one-generation leap are: Rev. Joseph Lowery, who with Dr. King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; he will deliver the benediction at tomorrow's swearing in; Charlayne Hunter-Gault, a NewsHour alum who was also the first African-American woman to attend the University of Georgia, she's now a special correspondent in Africa for NPR and other news organizations; Ta-Nehisi Coates, contributing editor for the Atlantic and a fellow at the Nation Institute; and Rael Nelson James, a development associate for KIPP DC, a network of high-performing inner-city charter schools in and around Washington, D.C.

    Welcome to you all.

    As you look at this day, Charlayne, and you talk to your cohorts about what not only this Martin Luther King Holiday means, but tomorrow's inauguration, what's the conversation like?

  • CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT, National Public Radio:

    The conversation is simply ebullient. I don't think I have seen a time like this in my lifetime, even though I wasn't one of those who thought I wouldn't see Barack Obama become president. I thought, given the experiences we had in the civil rights movement, of course a black man one day would be president.

    But the exuberance in Washington, D.C., alone — and also where I live now, in South Africa — I was buying something at a deli the other day. And the young man said to me — he notes I'm an American — he says, "Are you going to the inauguration?" And I said, "Oh, absolutely." "And what are you going to do?" And I said, "I'm going to this ball and that ball and that ball." He said, "Well, we're having a ball, too, all over Africa."

    I mean, it's truly all over the world. I think it's a transcendental moment.


    Rev. Lowery, would you use the term "transcendental" or is there anything that kind of makes people nervous about this ebullience?

    REV. JOSEPH LOWERY, co-founder, Southern Christian Leadership Conference: I might use it, if I knew what it meant.


    How would you describe it?


    I don't know. Words are so inadequate. Martin would be 80 last Thursday. And I don't know. I can't put into words what this means to the world.

    He's the first global president. If anybody is the president of the world, Barack Obama symbolically represents that.

    I've never seen what CNN and some of these networks did on election night, going around the country, showing the exultation, the joy, the celebration in country after country after country, because Barack Obama had been elected president. There's something electrifying about it.

    And it's not just — when we were fighting in the '60s for the right to vote, all of us thought one day there would be a black president. And we knew there would be a day; we just didn't know the date.

    And the date becomes November 4, 2008. And it's a marvelous day and a marvelous date. And it's the beginning of a new era in global politics and in human relations across the globe. It can't be the same anymore.