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On King and Obama


As Speaker of the California Assembly, I often am invited to events that focus on California’s youth and their future. I frequently tell the young people about the principle of Sankofa. That’s the African principle that says we must go back to reclaim our past so we can move into the future. The symbol of Sankofa is a bird looking backward while it continues to walk ahead.

If ever there were a time that represented what Sankofa is all about, this week is it.

This week we celebrate the birth, 80 years ago, of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a man rooted in faith — a faith he expressed in his commitment to empower those who were left behind in our society. This week also we celebrate the inauguration of Barack Obama — an African American community organizer with his own record of empowering others — as he becomes president of the United States.

Looking back at the life and works of King, and looking ahead to the values and promise of Obama, we can see great changes that were won at immense cost and more great changes to come — along with the shared sacrifice they require. Sankofa.

We can see bookends of hope that make it clear that America is better than what we have had these past eight years.

For those years, it has been too much attention for the few, too little regard for the many.

Deregulation that thrilled a few financiers and threw many families out of their homes.

A war dreamed up by a few and paid for with the lives of too many soldiers and civilians.

An economy that is leaving more people out of work and in poverty than since the Great Depression.

Too much attention for the few, too little regard for the many.

That wasn’t what drove King. And it’s not what drives Obama.

King didn’t lead boycotts and ultimately give his life for the few. He did it to overturn hundreds of years of oppression. King saw that for almost 250 years, African Americans had been considered chattel. The brutality those generations who went before endured is part of how King came to be who he was. And part of how we became who we are today.

Obama can see how 50 years ago African Americans transformed their struggles into the civil rights movement. He can see the determination and dignity of leaders like King, and see that their journeys were not about how far they could go, but about how many they could take with them. That is part of how Obama came to be who he is.

Who will President Obama ultimately be? How will he heal our battered economy, restore peace and shore up America’s reputation around the world? How will he spur the environmental technology we need and the economic and educational equity that is so long overdue? Those pages are to be written in the book that opens this week.

But Sankofa tells me this: When future generations look back at us to reclaim their past and chart their future, I believe they will see a man who provided a bookend of hope to the dream of the Rev. King.

I believe they will see a man who, like King, worked to empower the many and not just the few. They will see someone who helped and healed America. They will see someone who worked to move our collective humanity forward.