News Release: Politics

Nov. 17,  2008

Lewis: Victorious Obama an Iconic Image

From Emory Report

The diverse crowd that gathered in Grant Park to celebrate the win of Barack Obama created a powerful image, said Provost Earl Lewis, in a discussion at the Ethics Center on “Questions of Race in an Election Year.”

“But what you lose in that iconic image is the same thing that you lose in the image of Rosa Parks in that bus,” Lewis said. “It’s that somehow the moment, the image, becomes the shorthand for all the work that went into creating it, and that we fail to remember that it takes organization, it takes strategy, it takes the willingness to make a mistake and then recover from that mistake.”

Generations of students have told Lewis that they wished they had been around during the civil rights era, when people changed things. “I look at them and say, ‘Do you realize that you’re the architects of change?’” said Lewis, Asa Candler Griggs Professor of History and African American Studies.

The White House was built by slave labor but, for many years, blacks were not allowed to enter the building except as servants, Lewis said. It was not until 1901 that Booker T. Washington became the first African American to dine with a president in the White House, at the invitation of Theodore Roosevelt. The event “created such a stir,” Lewis said, that it was not until decades later, in 1970, that an African American was an overnight guest at the White House, when Sammy Davis Jr. stayed in the Lincoln Bedroom during the Nixon administration.

“And now the Obamas and their children will be playing on the South Lawn,” Lewis said, discussing the profound implications of the election results.

Although Obama’s win was remarkable, it does not mean that race and racism have disappeared from American life, he added.

“For every successive generation of young people that I’ve encountered in a university setting — although the degree that they talk about race is different from their parents — they are not color blind,” Lewis said. “Race is one of those social categories that, whether we like it or not, we have to deal with.”

The Unity Month event was hosted by the President’s Commission on Race and Ethnicity, the Office of Multicultural Programs and Services, the Transforming Community Project and others.

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