Inauguration helps reconcile ‘old hatreds’

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — Joel Newsome is a living embodiment of change.

That’s what the 69-year-old told a subway car full of exhausted strangers Tuesday as the train rolled along the Potomac River.

Maybe it was the emotion of witnessing Barack Obama sworn in as the nation’s first black president that inspired Newsome to share his life tale in such a public setting, or perhaps it was the fatigue that comes with braving a crowd of near 2 million people.

Either way, the words spilled from him unfiltered.

“I hated black people,” said Newsome, a Louisiana native who found his way to Oregon 30 years ago. “I really did, because my father raised me to be that way. I did terrible things in the name of white supremacy when I was young. … Some in my family poured wine the day Dr. King was killed.”

Those close enough to hear his words fell silent.

It seemed an odd time for confessions from a former Southern racist. Most in the train, including Newsome, were clad in shirts or hats or pins celebrating Obama and had earlier in the day joined hundreds of thousands who chanted his name on the National Mall.

In hindsight, there could not have been a more appropriate occasion for his story.

“I can’t point to any moment when the light flipped,” Newsome continued. “It happened over time, many years. I made new friends, I read books, took classes in college. I expanded my point of reference, and by the time I was 30, that’s when I realized how much I had changed.”

Tears streamed from Newsome’s eyes, he said, as Obama delivered his inaugural address from the steps of the Capitol. And he wasn’t alone. Countless men and women who found themselves on the opposite side of Newsome’s world in the 1960s, black men and women from all regions, also were overcome by emotion.

Newsome stood among a crowd full of people who he once claimed to hate and joined them in celebrating a symbolic triumph of human spirits.

“The year Barack was born (in 1961), I probably cursed at more blacks than I’d like to admit,” Newsome said. “Look at where we are today and where I am today.”

Those on the train — including this young journalist — struggling to process the profundity of the inauguration needed search no further.

Among the crowd that to my eyes could have been 10 million, were not just those who suffered at the hands of racism; there were men and women like Newsome. Among the masses that crammed into trains and buses — shoulder-to-shoulder, face-to-face — hours before sunrise, were men and women like Newsome. Among those who, instead of griping about being stuck in crowded Metro stations for upward of two hours, chose to chant together — a stirring, “Yes we can, yes we can,” — were men and women like Newsome.

Reconciliation is a principle too often underestimated in this nation, where many preach justice as an eye for an eye. But true healing doesn’t work that way. And so it was on Jan. 20, 2009.

It was a day when men like Joel Newsome and Joel Marshal, a black man who endured bitter segregation in Atlanta, could join in the same crowd and celebrate a common milestone. Reconciliation.

It was a day when the dream that once echoed throughout the world from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial finally reached the walls of the White House, a structure built more than 200 years ago by black slaves. Reconciliation.

And it was a day when a 47-year-old man, born of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya, could step before a crowd of millions gathered from places like New York and San Francisco and Rocky Mount, and declare: “Because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; and that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself.”

Sweet reconciliation.

Mike Hixenbaugh covers politics for the Rocky Mount Telegram.

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