The year was 1953. I was a junior at Swarthmore College, and my friend Anne Mott and I decided to hitchhike down to Washington in time for Dwight D. Eisenhower’s inauguration.
It was not that we liked Ike, or his campaign slogan (“It’s time for a change”!). Hardly. We had a theory and a plan. Our theory was that some of our favorite Democratic senators might be skipping the inaugural ceremonies, and our plan was while Ike was giving his boring inaugural address, we would visit the Senate office building and see what Democratic senators we could see. We were particularly interested in Senator Paul Douglas, the Illinois crusader for civil rights, because his daughter Jean was a Swarthmore sophomore, and we thought that might give us a leg up when we descended on his office without an appointment.
And, believe it or not, that is exactly what happened. The Senate office building seemed quiet and mostly empty (there was no security at the street entrance in those those innocent days); and when we presented ourselves to the receptionist in Douglas’s outer office, shamelessly dropping his daughter Jean’s name, in a matter of minutes we were ushered into the inner sanctum.
There, big and tall, was the white-haired Senator. Although we knew he was a Quaker (who had joined the Marines in World War II), an economist, a stickler about not accepting any gifts worth more than something like $10, and dedicated to getting civil rights legislation through a reluctant Congress at a time when schools in Washington, DC, were still segregated and blacks were not allowed to ride in the same railroad cars as whites, we really had not prepared any questions, because deep down, we really hadn’t expected our plan to work.
So by way of small talk we asked him about the photographs on his wall. Lincoln we recognized, Clarence Darrow we knew all about, and Robert (“Fighting Bob”) LaFollette of Wisconsin we had heard of. But the man he wanted to talk about was John Peter Altgeld, the Democratic Illinois governor, whom he explained had committed career suicide by pardoning the three surviving Haymarket “rioters,” who were serving prison terms. I had read Howard Fast’s novel, The American, based on Altgeld’s life, but never knew where the facts stopped and fiction started, so Douglas’s eloquence about how Altgeld was an activist who placed conscience and the public welfare above personal gain, was memorable.
He asked us about Swarthmore, and we must have talked about other things, but the main thing was that Anne and I had succeeded in our mission and we returned to the open road as happy campers.
Now flash forward fifty-five years. When his primary opponent Hillary Clinton charged that Barack Obama was a good talker who hadn’t accomplished much, his backers cited his years as a community organizer when, inspired by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., he organized a public housing project called Altgeld Gardens. And indeed Obama devotes more than 100 pages of his his memoir, Dreams from My Father, to his experiences organizing the Altgeld Gardens, named of course after the governor on Senator Douglas’s wall. This, claimed his supporters, followed King’s model of organizing via the churches.
On Saturday Obama arrived in Washington from his “whistle stop” tour, by desegregated train. The last president-to-be who travelled to his inauguration by train was–who else?–Dwight D. Eisenhower. The papers featured stories about how Obama’s nominee for attorney general might be in trouble over his role in Clinton’s pardon of campaign contributor Marc Rich, but my mind was on Altgeld and how he had pardoned the remaining Haymarket rioters after Darrow, also on Douglas’s wall, had pleaded with him to do so.
And for what it’s worth, coincidentally or otherwise, on all the Sunday talk shows, African-Americans were well-represented among the punditocracy; among them Tavis Smiley on Meet the Press, who reminded us that when Carl Stokes was elected mayor of Cleveland, he spoke of “the importance of black faces in high places.” Obama, Smiley said, is not the fulfillment of Martin Luther King’s dream, “but he is the down-payment.”
Well, here we are, celebrating Doctor King’s birthday, and I’m on my way–this time via Amtrak–to see what Inauguration Day brings. But If it gets too cold out there, I have no plans to warm myself by going into one of the Senate office buildings. Been there, done that, and I’m too curious about what the new man in the White House has to say.