Today, we all become part of history.
Everyone who watches the inauguration of Barack Obama will bear witness to something that has never happened before: an African-American becoming President of the United States.
In its own way, the event is as ground-breaking as the day in 1969 when men first walked on the moon. And just as happened back then, people all over the world will gather in front of televisions to watch, if for no other reason than sheer curiosity.
Obama’s election came as a surprise not simply because he is a person of color, but because it seemed to symbolically reverse four centuries of regrettable American history.
Much of the nation’s early infrastructure was built by enslaved Africans, but conflicts over slavery eventually led to a bitter war that almost tore the country apart. Even after the slaves were emancipated, 100 years went by before blacks were granted the same rights enjoyed by other Americans.
When black sanitation workers went on strike in Memphis in 1968, they carried signs that said, "I am a man." The notion of becoming president seemed a ludicrous fantasy; they were asking merely to be treated as human beings.
Forty years later, a black American is arguably the most powerful person in the world.
And the world has taken notice.
"Everyone I know who lives outside the United States e-mailed me after the election," said Michelle Brattain, associate professor of history at Georgia State University. "It was such a huge turnaround. In other countries that have a history of racial conflicts, this has renewed their faith that it can be overcome."
Jacqueline Rouse, associate professor of African-American history at GSU, called Obama’s election "a major watershed in global history."
"Obviously, I think it’s monumental," she said. "It’s significant for everybody. Look at the reception of Barack in places like Berlin (where then-candidate Obama spoke to a crowd of 200,000 last summer)."
But Rouse doesn’t believe Obama’s presidency can erase the stain of slavery and the denial of civil rights.
"The election doesn’t mean that the struggle is over," she said. "It doesn’t mean all the problems that exist have been resolved."
Daniel Franklin, associate professor of political science at GSU, thinks Obama’s inauguration will be a good first step.
"It’s a real ‘oh gosh’ moment to have come to this point, when you look at America’s racial past," he said. "I think there will be more trust between blacks and whites, because Obama couldn’t have gotten elected without white votes. He needed both."
Douglas Young, professor of political science at Gainesville State College, said the fascination with Obama goes beyond race.
"There’s a lot of factors coalescing to make this a more significant event than the usual inauguration," he said. "Obama will be the first non-white president, but he’s also much younger than the presidents we’ve had in recent years, and he’s much more liberal following eight years of a conservative administration."
Young thinks the news coverage surrounding the inauguration has been excessive, but it seems to be at least partly driven by Obama’s personal charisma.
"There’s his eloquence and his public speaking ability, and the way he seemed to tap into people’s frustration about the need for change," he said.
Young recalls that John F. Kennedy generated a similar media frenzy when he became president.
"We’ll see if the hype (about Obama) is warranted," he said.
Rouse said Obama’s popularity was based on more than catchy campaign slogans.
"It’s because of the hope that he has generated," she said. "He tapped into a group of people who had not been included (in the political process) and showed them there’s something good about community service."
Brattain said the way Obama built a following from the ground up was unprecedented.
"What strikes me as unique about Obama is that he had a massive grass-roots campaign," she said. "So there’s a lot of excitement and enthusiasm (about the inauguration), even among people who didn’t vote for him."
Even those who don’t support Obama acknowledge that he can give a good speech. During the campaign, some of his opponents ridiculed him for offering a lot of pretty words without much substance.
But John Maltese, head of the department of political science at the University of Georgia, said Obama’s gift for rhetoric is exactly what’s needed right now.
"The inaugural address is very important," he said. "It sets the tone for whether this is someone we can trust to handle things. People will be looking at his demeanor."
Maltese said some of the greatest U.S. presidents — Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt — inspired Americans in the same way that Obama does. "All had great oratorical skills, and you can’t underestimate that," he said.
Brattain said Obama, like FDR, will take office as the country seems to be spiralling toward a financial meltdown.
"There was the same sense of urgency about FDR," she said. "There was an economic crisis and people wanted him to take office as soon as possible. He restored people’s confidence that government could be a source of solutions."
Franklin, too, sees parallels between Obama and the president who took office during the Great Depression.
"Obama needs to be upbeat like FDR was," he said. "He needs to be a cheerleader."
But Obama is also expected to temper his enthusiasm with a dose of reality.
"An inaugural address is unique," said Franklin. "It’s not a campaign speech. It’s not about a specific subject. It gives an opportunity to lay out a broad vision."
Maltese said though Obama shouldn’t make promises he can’t keep, he may be able to convey a message that with hard work, the current economic crisis can be overcome.
"I don’t think Obama will disappoint," Maltese said. "From what I understand, he’s been putting a lot of thought into this speech, and I think there will be some memorable lines."