Obama’s Place in History, and Ours

A man with a keen sense of history will make history Tuesday when he takes the oath as the 44th president of these United States, a nation now confronting challenges of historic magnitude.

Barack Hussein Obama began his campaign in Springfield, Illinois, where President Abraham Lincoln famously delivered his House Divided speech, saying “this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.” Now Mr. Obama’s long campaign culminates with his riding the rails, as Lincoln did, to Washington. There Mr. Obama will be sworn in as the first African American president of what he has called “this improbable experiment in democracy,” placing his brown-skinned hand on the bible once used for the inauguration of Lincoln, who led America to outlaw slavery.

But as Mr. Obama pointed out last March, in his most eloquent speech about race in contemporary America, emancipation did not end our fight for the justice promised in our Constitution. “What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part — through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk — to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time,” he said.

His election as commander in chief does not free the rest of us from the continuing need to do our part. History suggests we will not fail. Families on Martha’s Vineyard risked much to house fleeing slaves in Lincoln’s lifetime, while others who cast their ballot for Obama played their role in the civil rights fights of his childhood. Throughout those times, this Island community has been shaped by a thriving culture of black families who were welcomed here in ways that were uncommon for the times.

On Monday, the day before inauguration, the country honors another African American, Martin Luther King Jr. On the Vineyard, one family celebrates Mr. King’s legacy each year by opening their home for something they call Pancakes for Peace. They invite everyone they know to come and eat; last year a student gave a moving reading from one of Dr. King’s speeches, and musicians led many crowded into the living room in singing, among other songs, We Shall Overcome. Few left with room in their bellies for more food or in their hearts for more goodness.

Those folks are getting the griddle ready again, because they too have a keen sense of history. They know that, as soon-to-be-President Obama has said, this country is ever struggling to form a more perfect union. Islanders will honor Dr. King in myriad ways Monday, and on Tuesday we will watch President Obama’s inauguration from schools, cafes, libraries, homes and offices. And then we will keep going.

For these times have their own challenges, some crushingly immediate. Even on this Island apart from mainland America, national problems are evident — in the empty shopfronts, in the faces of friends losing their jobs, in the shadows of homeless people seeking shelter, in letters from Vineyarders on duty in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in the prejudice against Brazilian immigrants, in the exodus of Islanders who can’t afford a home, in the degradation of environmental safeguards, in the good works left undone until money comes again. Such challenges will not be swept away with the swearing in of a new president, however miraculous and historic his election may be.

Mr. Obama calls his campaign part of the long march of those who came before us — a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America. Each of us, and all of us together in our schools and supermarket aisles, our town meetings and family dinners, can be inspired by those people in history who brought us to this remarkable point. And we can be inspired by our new president, who described his motivations this way: “I chose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together — unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction — towards a better future for our children and our grandchildren.”

This is the oath by which we all are bound.