At The Inauguration, A Time For Civil Rights Reflection

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Joseph McCoggle grew up in Atlanta under segregation. He's 66 years old, African-American, and now retired from the U.S. Postal Service. Earlier this week, he came to President Obama's second inauguration, to mark the moment in civil rights history.


Earlier this week, hundreds of thousands of people came to the National Mall for the inauguration. Many had been walking since dawn and were in place along the west front of the Capitol where flags snapped in the sun.

JOSEPH MCCOGGLE: It's a feeling we just want to be here, you know. Definitely want to be in the hype, you know, and to see people of all races, and races from all over the world.

SIMON: Joseph McCoggle was there. He's 66 years old and retired from the U.S. Postal Service. He made the long trip from Atlanta where he grew up, and as he waited in the cheerful crowd he remembered what daily life had been like for African-Americans who grew up in the South when segregation was the law.

MCCOGGLE: I mean, white ladies, they walk down the street, you stepped off the street. Certain benches you couldn't sit on. When we got on the trolleys you had to always go to the back. It was a normal thing to go to the back, you know.

SIMON: They had a bright memory, too. When he was a boy in the 1950s, Mr. McCoggle shined shoes at a barber shop near the famous Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the young Martin Luther King Junior joined his father as pastor. Says he remembers Dr. King stopping by.

MCCOGGLE: He just was another person. We knew he was Dr. King in the movement; he walked up and down the street every day, I rarely spoke to him, and his respect was powerful. But I didn't realize until I got older who he was, you know. I knew who he was but I didn't know who he was. Can you understand what I'm saying?

SIMON: Of course this was before the freedom rides and the march on Washington. No one knew that Dr. King would become a hero, a martyr, or have his name on a national holiday. Joseph McCoggle just knew that Dr. King would come in for a shoe shine.

MCCOGGLE: And he knew my name. All right, Joseph, I need one. I need a shine, you know. And he was a good tipper. Always - I charged him 35 cents. He always gave me a dollar. Always gave me a dollar.

SIMON: As Joseph McCoggle waited in the bright cold on the National Mall, he said he was thinking about his childhood.

MCCOGGLE: I'm here for my mother and my grandmother, so they wouldn't have believed. They wouldn't even have believed it. I thought it was going to be a black president, but I didn't think it would be in my time. I thought it might be in my grandkids' time, but not my time, you know. And I thank the Lord for me being here to see it.

SIMON: Mr. McCoggle of Atlanta stood on the National Mall and saw the scene his mother and grandmother wouldn't have believed for the second time. President Obama placed his hand on a Bible that had been carried by the man whose shoes a young Joseph McCoggle says he once shined.


SIMON: And you're listening to NPR News.

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