The Tri-Valley YMCA traditionally holds it community-wide breakfast honoring the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a week after the national holiday so that more people will come. This year, the ninth annual breakfast was even timelier, coming just six days after Barack Obama was sworn in as president and with a top Kaiser Permanente executive to talk about it.
Bernard Tyson, who as chief operating officer and also executive vice president for health plan and hospital operations for the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan and Hospitals is also the organization's senior African-American officer. He was active early on in Obama's presidential campaign. He saw Obama speak at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 and heard MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews talk about how the Illinois politician just might become America's first black president.
The possibility spurred Tyson to become involved in that effort, working the California circuit when he could to help the candidate. Up to then, Tyson told us, he never doubted that an African-American could one day become president, but thought that wouldn't happen in his lifetime. He was, however, seeing generational changes taking place with his own children, who are growing up colorblind, inviting friends of all colors and nationalities to their home. For sure times are changing, Tyson realized, only much faster than he had predicted.
Tyson saw the change even more dramatically during his week in Washington, D.C. for the inauguration festivities. With front section seats at various programs and the swearing-in ceremony as well, "this was truly unbelievable," he said. At a concert at the Lincoln Memorial, he was only a few rows down from Obama, although he joked that it was also a bit uncomfortable with six plain-clothed sharpshooters also facing him.
His special seats for the inauguration were in a section that 250,000 others shared, but given the shoulder-to-shoulder standing crowd of 2 million behind him, Tyson felt honored at being so close. It was indeed a festive gathering with strangers hugging, kissing, crying and screaming, Tyson said. Then, all at once as Obama went to the rostrum to receive the oath of office, there was absolute silence. Two million people stood in complete silence, so quiet that they could hear birds chirping. Tyson said he'd never seen anything like it: Two million people crowded together in the 2-mile long National Mall with no arrests, no violence and no disruptions, and then with slow, rolling shouts of cheers, hand-clapping and high-fives as Barack Obama became the country's first African-American president.
What would Dr. King think of America today if somehow he could come back for a visit? He would say, "Oh my God, this is what I've been talking about," Tyson said. "We have placed this African-American in the White House not because he's black, but because he was the better candidate, because he has a better agenda, and because the American people voted for him."
If he had come to this year's YMCA breakfast, Dr. King would have been just as surprised and delighted to see Tyson at the lectern--another African-American at the helm of one of the country's top health care establishments, the chief operating officer with a $40-billion budget.
"I think he'd look at me and my job and say, 'You have to be kidding,'" Tyson said. "He would look over and see my beautiful fiancee, Denise Bradley (who was at the breakfast) and learn that she is a Harvard graduate, and say, 'Harvard where?' Then he would look at all of us in this room, people of different races, and color and ethnic backgrounds, people who represent the fabric of this great country, and see us breaking bread together in his honor, and he would be elated and pleased."
And so were all of us, both with the emotionally-stirring remarks by Bernard Tyson and the better understanding we had gained through the Tri-Valley YMCA program of the many accomplishments of Martin Luther King, Jr.