The Rev. Otis Moss Jr. believes the nation will witness an epic moment in history when President Barack Obama publicly takes his oath of office on the day set aside to commemorate the life of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in a year that marks the 50th anniversary of a pivotal time in the civil rights movement.
“It will set forth a memory that no one will ever be able to erase. It’s indelible,” said Moss, a civil rights and social justice advocate. “When people talk about the second inauguration of Barack Obama 100 years from now, they will reference it on Martin Luther King Day.”
Moss’ career has included working with King, co-pastoring Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church with the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., serving more than three decades as pastor of one of Cleveland’s most influential churches, Olivet Institutional Baptist, and chairing the national clergy advisory committee of the 2008 Obama campaign.
He is not alone in his belief about today’s importance.
Surinder Bhardwaj, a Hindu priest and professor emeritus in Kent State University’s geography department, considers the event to be miraculous. He said he believes Obama’s re-election is an important step in progress toward fulfilling King’s vision of a time when people are judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.
“It’s totally awesome that a man of African-American descent has been elected to a second term as president. We are watching miracles right now,” said Bhardwaj, 78, of Kent. “When I look at President Obama, I am filled with the hope that maybe America has matured to a place where anybody who is good can be accepted.”
Bhardwaj, a native of India, said he was appalled when he came to the United States in 1962 as a graduate student in the Minneapolis area and saw startling images on black-and-white television of police confronting civil rights protesters. He said he will never forget the images of demonstrators being beaten with nightsticks and facing down fire hoses.
“I was baffled by the whole thing. In India, we had been taught that freedom reigned in America. But when I saw huge German shepherd police dogs being let loose on peaceful marchers, I realized that the caste system didn’t only exist in India,” Bhardwaj said. “I couldn’t understand the oppression in a country that was supposed to have equality for everyone.”
The following spring, the civil rights movement experienced a pivotal moment when King took on segregation in Birmingham, Ala. — a city that had earned the nickname “Bombingham” because of the number of explosions that had claimed lives (including four school girls) and destroyed homes and churches.
The website www.nobodyturnmearound.com — named for Charles Eucher’s book, Nobody Turn Me Around: A People’s History of the 1963 March on Washington — documents a march through downtown Birmingham on Good Friday that resulted in the arrest of 750 people, including King, and drew international attention to the movement.
In the weeks after Birmingham, nearly 15,000 protesters were arrested around the country.
In August, more than 200,000 people gathered in the nation’s capital to rally for jobs and freedom. Moss, a Georgia native, was among those arrested during the demonstrations and those in the crowd at the historic march at the Lincoln Memorial, where King delivered his I Have a Dream speech.
“I happen to be one of those who is a believer in the scripture that says ‘all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to his purpose’ [Romans 8:28, KJV],” said Moss, who was named by Obama to serve in 2009 on a newly established White House Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
“Just like it took a coalition of people — religious and nonreligious, young and old, black and white, male and female — to win the struggle for the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, it took a coalition ... to elect Barack Obama to a second term,” Moss said. “Every generation has an obligation to fight for the rights that their forebearers have won in the past. Once you assume that the protection of a right is no longer necessary, that’s when you lose it. We can never afford to be complacent.”
Moss used poverty as an example, saying that the thrust of the civil rights movement in 1968 was to eliminate poverty.
“The Poor People’s Campaign was a bold and necessary action, and it is in no way over. The rise in the poverty index is startling.”
Rabbi Gerald Zelizer, a native of Columbus who now leads Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen, N.J., agrees the struggle is not over.
As a young rabbi, he heard King speak during a national rabbinical convention in New York in 1968, just 10 days before he was assassinated. King’s talk that day included his hope for racial equality and the end of the Vietnam War, his goal for ending poverty for 40 million Americans and his challenge to the religious community to lead the fight against social injustices.
“His words still resonate: ‘All too often I have seen religious leaders stand amid the social injustices that pervade our society, mouthing pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. All too often the religious community has been a taillight instead of a headlight,’ ” he said.
Zelizer, 74, said he believes Obama’s re-election is the fulfillment of what King hoped for in the political arena. He warned, however, that the accomplishment should not deter people, particularly those in the faith community, to fight social injustices.
“Some of the social issues that [King] addressed were submerged by the achievement of racial equality in the political sphere. That should not deter us from unresolved issues like poverty and work issues,” Zelizer said. “His moral and religious fervor began with his own people, but it didn’t stop there. It expanded to incorporate the unifying themes of all faiths, and those with no faith, and an assortment of societal ills, of which racial equality was only one. He defined the common humanity of all people.”
Colette Jenkins can be reached at 330-996-3731 or email@example.com.