March 12, 2010

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— WASHINGTON — Forty years ago last spring, John Jenkins stood on the stage at his high school in Newark, N.J., and proudly shook the hand of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

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Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer: On the National Mall near the Capitol in Washington, D.C. on Monday, January 19, 2008, Auburn Mayor John Jenkins reflects on being in the nation's capital for the inauguration of Barack Obama.

One week after that, King was dead, felled by an assassin's bullet. And Newark, like so many other American cities, was ablaze with anger.

Now here Jenkins stood on the National Mall, halfway between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, on the morning of Martin Luther King Day. In a day's time, hundreds of thousands of Americans were going to pack this frozen space to witness the inauguration of Barack Obama, the country's first black president.

''You don't just rush into a significant moment like this without giving serious consideration to what it means,'' Jenkins said Monday. ''For me, personally, it means a lot.''

Jenkins' story is well-known to any student of Maine politics.

A young black man comes to almost-all-white Maine in the late 1960s to attend Bates College. Upon graduating, he never leaves.

Over time, he becomes the mayor of Lewiston, the first black member of the state Senate and the mayor of Auburn. In Auburn, he's such a popular mayor that even after he tries to step down in 2007, adoring voters re-elect him anyway via the write-in ballot.

Hence Jenkins, with his high-wattage smile and his oratorical skills honed from years as a motivational speaker, understands the Obama phenomenon in ways many Mainers can't.

From where he sits -- and today it will be in full view of the swearing-in ceremony, thanks to a ticket from U.S. Sen. Susan Collins -- political leadership is no longer about skin color.

It's about listening.

Jenkins said that Obama can connect to mainstream white America because he speaks with people in words they understand about ''solving problems that affect their lives solving problems that affect their children's lives.''

Do that long enough and honestly enough, Jenkins said, and the racial barrier simply evaporates.

''It's transformational. It really changes people's hearts,'' he said. ''It's not that you change them. They change themselves.''

As he spoke, packs of excited high school students posed for pictures among the nation's larger-than-life memorials, oblivious to the cold. Rather than saying ''cheese'' for the cameras, one youthful group hollered, ''Obama!''

''The issue of race is not even on their radar screen,'' Jenkins said. ''And it won't be an issue as long as we, the previous generations, don't make it an issue for the next generation. If we allow them to see the world through their own eyes, through their own experiences, then in fact it will not be an issue.''

Still, as much as today is about the future, it's also about the past.

The first time Jenkins ever visited Washington, he was in junior high school. And the one memory that still stands was running, not walking, up the steps to the Lincoln Memorial.

''I remember getting up there, exhausted, and realizing how many steps it took this nation to get to this point,'' he said. ''It takes many steps to this level of nationhood.''

That it does.

When Jenkins was a kid, his mother displayed the photo of an old man in the family's living room. He was Jenkins' ancestor, and he had once been a slave.

Then there was the story of an uncle on Jenkins' mother's side who lived in the deep South and, long before Martin Luther King came along, agitated for the right to vote.

''They tarred and feathered him,'' Jenkins said. ''They wanted to send a message.''

Truth be told, Jenkins himself has occasionally smelled the danger that comes with being a high-profile black man in a society dominated by whites.

Security, he said, was an overriding issue years ago when he served as master of ceremonies for a rally called to show support for Somali immigrants in the Lewiston-Auburn area.

Were there threats?

''There were some issues there,'' Jenkins replied, going no further. ''Did I dwell on it? No. Did it stop me from going further? No.''

It would be easy to attach those same worries to Obama as he embarks on uncharted ground. But again, Jenkins said, a true leader is ''compelled by a higher calling of service, rather than listening to the idle threats from people trying to discourage you.''

Besides, Jenkins said, this is no time for fear. For all that awaits President Obama once today's parade winds down and the adoring masses go home, it's a time for hope that Americans somehow found the right man -- who happens to be black -- for these troubled times.

''This is his time. This is his moment,'' Jenkins said. ''This is the moment.''

Indeed. And Jenkins, with his VIP seat and his enviable digs (thanks to a fellow Bates alumnus) just a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol, still can't quite believe he's here to witness it.

As it all unfolds, Jenkins' mind will be on more than what might well be the biggest spectacle Washington has ever seen.

He'll think about that handshake from Martin Luther King Jr. and the countless steps to Abraham Lincoln.

He'll think about his long-gone uncle and all those other ''unsung heroes of democracy who died in obscurity because they wanted to vote or they wanted to have it better right in their own little community.''

And he'll think about his own mother, who still lives in Newark. She's lost her sight, but she can still hear.

''On election night, there were tears in my eyes,'' Jenkins said. ''I cried for what she could not see.''

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

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