Since Barack Obama was inaugurated on the west Capitol steps four years ago, a dramatic 30-foot memorial to civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. has been unveiled at the other end of the National Mall.
But a key part of the political landscape President Obama will survey as he is sworn in for a second term -- that is, the number of black officials in top elective offices -- hasn't changed a bit.
Obama's groundbreaking election in 2008 and his re-election in 2012 undeniably has affected the nation's racial politics, proving it's possible for an African American to win the nation's highest office and raising the aspirations of some black candidates. He sparked record turnout in two elections among African-American voters.
"One of the many things significant that happened when this president was elected: It gave a much larger group of people an opportunity to be unburdened by who has traditionally done what," says Kamala Harris, who in 2010 became the first woman and first black elected attorney general of California.
"There's a bigger ripple than we tend to assign to it," says Kweisi Mfume, a former congressman and president of the NAACP.
In the admittedly short four years since the 2008 election, however, the Obama effect hasn't been reflected in more black candidates actually winning election to the Senate, the House and the nation's governorships. At the intersection of today's events -- the federal holiday honoring King and the public inauguration of a black president for a second term -- the path to the top jobs in American politics seems as steep as ever.
"There were definitely people who were inspired to run for statewide office because of Barack Obama's success," says Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University and author of The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark, and Post-Racial America. "They saw it as a sign that America's racial politics were softening to the point blacks could make more credible runs for statewide office. But we haven't seen the materialization of that dream."
By the numbers:
There was one black governor when Obama was inaugurated in 2009. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts is still the only African-American governor in office and just the second since Reconstruction.
There were no elected black U.S. senators in 2009; there still aren't today. Then, Roland Burris had been appointed to fill Obama's Senate seat in Illinois. Now, Tim Scott of South Carolina has been appointed to fill the seat vacated by Jim DeMint last month.
There were 39 African Americans elected to the House of Representatives in 2008, not including delegates. There were 42 elected in 2012.
Fifty years ago, when King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech at the March on Washington, there were five black members of the House and none in the Senate.
This month marks what Taylor Branch, author of a three-volume history of the civil rights movement, calls the "poignant" overlap of epic anniversaries: 150 years since President Lincoln in January 1863 signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Fifty years since George Wallace in January 1963 was sworn in as governor of Alabama, infamously vowing "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." And now, in January 2013, Obama sworn in for a second term, his hand on Bibles once used by Lincoln and King.
"We are kidding ourselves to think we've gotten over race," Branch says. It is still a "fraught" subject he says most Americans prefer to avoid. Whatever remains to be done, however, he calls the convergence of historic anniversaries a signal of breathtaking change.
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