Understanding content of our character

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By Angela Onwuachi-Willig


President Barack Obama will be inaugurated for his second term on the same day we celebrate Martin Luther King Day, a sign, perhaps, for the country to have a long-needed conversation on race.

Unfortunately, I will not have the honor of attending Monday’s historic event, but in January 2009, I had the opportunity to experience the magic of Obama’s first inauguration. Remembering that occasion reminds me of one small part of “Eyes on the Prize,” where the Rev. Ralph Abernathy fondly mused over the 1963 March on Washington at the National Mall, the one that ended with “I Have A Dream.”

Abernathy reminisced: “Where 250,000 people had sat that day, there was nothing but the wind blowing ... this beautiful scene of the wind dancing and the sands of the Lincoln Memorial, I will never forget. This was the greatest moment of my life.” For many of us who were standing on that same lawn 46 years later, Obama’s first inauguration was that same kind of moment.


Personally, I experienced an eruption of emotion each time I saw an elderly black woman or man, striding slowly but proudly with a cane or being pushed in a wheelchair, to witness what once had seemed unimaginable in their lifetimes — to see the fruits of their sacrifices and protests. Mostly, I delighted in the enchanted atmosphere that hung in the air — the beaming smiles on faces of all races; the warmth that people showed one another on that freezing day; the patience of many who waited peacefully in line for hours to share more than just a ceremonial moment together; and the boundless optimism that burrowed into the hearts of Americans there (and across the nation), making us all believe, even if just for one fleeting moment, that we might overcome.

I have often wondered to myself whether King held those same strong feelings on Aug. 28, 1963. I wonder if he will be looking down on inauguration day, with the hope that this nation will eventually make a reality of his notable statement, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”


I believe that King would want us all to reflect on the meaning of these important words — this statement that has too often been misconstrued and exploited to further political, social, and economic interests that are at odds with his vision. For decades, many have stretched the meaning of these words, insisting that King was pinpointing colorblindness — meaning the idea that we can “move forward” by ignoring the history and circumstances of racism that created and continue to produce racial inequalities — as the ideal.

Yet, I declare with every confidence that this interpretation was not King’s dream. His dream was not that we would disregard race, pretending that its meanings and functions in the past (and still in the present) have no enduring consequences. Rather, it was that we would embrace the lessons of both our racial history and present to reach “the mountaintop.”

This content of King’s character is part of what we so greatly admire in him today, and it is not at all devoid of race, but instead imbued with it. It took the highest and most honorable character for King, a black man whose people had been brutalized during centuries of slavery, lynched for decades, and consistently denied basic human rights and dignities, to preach non-violence in the most violent of systems and offer assurances that one day this great nation would live up to its promise. In such cases, the content of one’s character cannot be measured without acknowledging race — the racism that one had to forgive, but not forget, in building that character. That King believed so deeply in our nation and its citizens, despite countless experiences that dictated otherwise, reveals immense character.


Looking back at that historic inauguration of 2009, I imagine that King, would want us to appreciate this interrelationship between race and character on inauguration day 2013. Much like King, Obama had the extraordinary ability to envision what so many of us, precisely because of the nation’s racial past and present, could not even begin to visualize before Nov. 4, 2008. Much like King’s dream, Obama’s belief that U.S. citizens can have an election that goes beyond our immediate racialized present and his belief for 2008 especially had a tremendous impact on our perceptions, expectations, and dreams. Frankly, that took a whole lot of character.

Lately, I, too, have been having a dream — that perhaps on Jan. 21, 2013, we as a nation will have the character to stop turning a blind eye to race and acknowledge, rather than ignore, the role it has played and continues to play in our lives.

Angela Onwuachi-Willig of Grinnell is the Charles and Marion Kierscht Professor at the University of Iowa College of Law. She teaches and writes scholarship on anti-discrimination law and race and the law. She is the author of the forthcoming book, “According to Our Hearts: Rhinelander v. Rhinelander and the Law of the Multiracial Family (Yale University Press).” Comments: angela-onwuachi@uiowa.edu

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