Reston Journalist Eugene Robinson gave the keynote address for the Reston Community Center’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday Celebration on Monday, Jan. 16, at the CenterStage.
The three-day event is the 32nd year that Reston has celebrated the life and legacy of Dr. King.
Robinson has been an associate editor for the Washington Post since 2005. He received a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for distinguished commentary for his opinion columns that he wrote in 2008 about the presidential campaign, which focused on President Barack Obama, the first African-American to hold the office.
On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, he reminisced about that time eight years ago and took the audience back to election night 2008. He told the crowd that he had spent the evening in New York City commentating on the set of MSNBC.
“It was a moment I would never forget,” he said. “It was 10:45 p.m. when we heard in our little earpieces that the network was going to call the election for Obama at 11 o’clock.”
Reality set in for him.
“Looking around the table, I said, ‘Oh dear. When they call the election for Obama, they’re going to go to the black guy, and so I better think of something to say,’” he said, making the audience burst into laughter.
The network went to a commercial break and he pulled out his cellphone to call his parents, who were still alive at the time.
“I got to tell them that they had lived to see the election of the first African-American president,” he said. “That was my moment from the 2008 election.”
He then asked the audience to jump ahead eight years to another election with a different outcome that he said “we’re still trying to figure out.”
He reflected on his latest Jan. 12 column where he wrote about Obama’s presidential legacy:
“The White House is really a glass house, and for eight years we have watched the Obamas live their lives in full public view. We’ve seen a president age, his hair graying and his once-unlined face developing a wrinkle here, a furrow there. We’ve seen a first lady change hairstyles and model an array of designer gowns. We’ve seen two little girls grow into young women.”
He explained how, to him, one of the most lasting impacts of Obama’s presidency is the visual of seeing a black family in the White House— seeing Obama walk across the South Lawn of the White House to get on Marine One, walk down the steps of Air Force One, deliver the State of the Union address, or host a state dinner.
“All of these ceremonial set pieces that we’re used to seeing, we know what the picture looks like, but now it looks different,” he said. “I think visual information is so powerful. It sort of rearranges the furniture inside our heads and gives us a different idea of what is possible, of what is right.”
He told the crowd he had been pondering a question as President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration looms.
“How did we get from Barack Obama to Donald Trump?” he asked the audience.
While he said Trump had an undeniable connection with voters on the campaign trail by striking a chord of “white, working-class grievance,” he also said the man is “unhinged.”
He told the crowd that Trump is the kind of man who, on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, picked a fight with U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., by calling him “All talk, talk, talk — no action or results” via a tweet on Twitter.
Lewis, a civil rights icon, stood with King on Aug. 28, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
“It’s just crazy on every level,” he said.
But he told the crowd that this stark contrast in behavior between the president and president-elect will continue during the next four years.
“It seems fairly clear for me what I have to do because I’m journalist,” he said. “My reaction I think has to be to do my job and hold this new administration accountable.”
But not everyone is a journalist.
He told the crowd that they, as citizens, also need to engage in holding the administration accountable by demanding the respect for the rule of law because it is vital to society,” as Dr. King surely would have reminded us,” he said.
“I think we’ve got a lot of work to do,” he said, finishing his speech.
“I appreciated his candor and his ability to empathize with his audience,” says Alexis Kassim, 32, of Reston who listened Robinson’s talk. “How I’ve been explaining my feelings as a black woman is that I may not live in safety, but I don’t live in fear.”
Kassim is associate pastor of the Westmoreland Congregational United Church of Christ in Bethesda, Md.
“I’m nervous about losing protections—civil rights, voting rights, environmental protections,” she says. “I’m nervous all of the progress we’ve made will be rolled back.”
Ken Reinfeld, 71, of Reston, also has concerns.
“I think what [Robinson] is saying is important,” he says. “To have a morally bankrupt person become president and the impact that will have on our children is worrisome.”
But Kassim remains hopeful.
“I believe in the power of the people and my generation,” she says.