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Luncheon crowd wowed by Obama’s second inauguration

Gregory Slater Waukegan becomes emotional during InauguratiPresident Barack Obama. Slater was attending an Inauguratilunchehosted by Black Chamber Commerce Lake County

Gregory Slater of Waukegan becomes emotional during the Inauguration of President Barack Obama. Slater was attending an Inauguration luncheon hosted by the Black Chamber of Commerce of Lake County at the Holiday Inn in Gurnee. | Thomas Delany Jr.~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 23, 2013 6:08AM

GURNEE — African Americans take special pride in the nation’s first black president.

To see Barack Hussein Obama inaugurated a second time, to see it happen on the day set aside to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and to hear their president declare that the country had “moved forward together” after “blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword,” gave cause for rejoicing and hope.

“In my lifetime I would have never thought I’d see a black president,” said Gregory Slater of Waukegan.

“I told my kids and everybody I knew, ‘We’ll never have a black president.’ Being black and seeing this happen, two times in a row is unbelievable. It’s overwhelming.”

Slater and wife Ladwyina were among a crowd of about 165 who attended Monday’s Inaugural Luncheon sponsored by the Black Chamber of Commerce of Lake County.

The Slaters, who own Westgate Funeral Home in Waukegan, which helped co-sponsor the luncheon, were among guests arriving at the Holiday Inn-Gurnee Convention Center and watching the swearing-in on two, 10-foot video screens.

“We can’t be there — it’s cold — but our joy is here today,” said Community Action Partnership Executive Director Mary Lockhart White, who summarized Obama’s first term as “Yes, we can” and “Yes, we did.”

“The next four years are about faith in America’s future,” she said.

Black leaders in attendance said Obama’s address was a reminder that the country is still a work in progress. Rev. Arthur Gass, Black Chamber president, cited unemployment numbers for blacks in Lake County that are double and triple that for whites.

Twenty percent of black adults and 50 percent of young black men, he estimates, are underemployed or jobless.

If Obama’s economic policies “come to fruition” Gass said, the local economy will see more federal contracts for building infrastructure.

“The fact that the president is advocating inclusion for the ‘least of these’ is a good thing,” Gass said.

“I expect unemployment levels will continue to decline and that we can put our people back to work.”

Regardless of who is president, Gass said, if policies aren’t crafted with working people in mind, “things won’t change.”

“It’s all right to celebrate a president,” Gass said. “Policies have to change.”

As Obama took the podium to deliver his 20-minute inaugural address, the luncheon crowd shouted “Obama! Obama! Obama!” and applauded throughout, with some lines including “our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and growing many barely make it,” drawing loud approval.

Rev. Wade Stevenson, pastor of Gideon Baptist Church in Waukegan and vice president of the NAACP Lake County Branch, said he heard echoes of King’s speeches in Obama’s words.

“When it comes to different segments of the population in the U.S., we can agree that we still are not free,” Stevenson said.

“We’ve made progress, but we still have progress to make. If we are inspired by Obama’s speech and by King’s speeches, it’s because they call for us to do something.”

Several leaders outside the black community also made brief remarks.

Lake County State’s Attorney Mike Nerheim observed that he was likely among the few Republicans in the room.

“But this isn’t about politics,” he said.

“It’s about coming together, working together and moving forward.”

Gurnee Mayor Kristina Kovarik, who recalled how she suffered in the cold of the 2009 presidential inauguration in D.C., praised Obama’s speech as non-partisan.“I’m so proud to be here,” she said.

“It’s a proud day to be an American,” agreed Roycealee Wood, Lake County regional superintendent of schools.

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