This New York Times picture of President Barack Obama sitting on the White House lawn, sipping beer and chatting about race relations with Professor Henry Louis Gates and Sgt. James Crowley, the policeman who arrested him last week, made me think of another incident that involved an invitation to sit at the White House table.
On October 16, 1901 the newly-elected President Theodore Roosevelt invited black leader Booker T. Washington to dine with him at the White House. This simple act ignited a firestorm of resentment and bigotry. Outraged Southern newspapers maligned the president and questioned his wisdom and patriotism for "mingling the races." Hate mail and death threats came pouring in. South Carolina Senator Benjamin Tillman said, "The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that n****r will necessitate our killing a thousand n****rs in the South before they will learn their place again."
These two tables, a century apart, symbolize the progress America has made on its slog through the mire of race relations. We've come a long way and we still have far to go but at least we're talking.