Those might be the most memorable words from Pres. Barack Obama’s second inaugural address, at least to those of us who share his vision of America:
We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.
It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country. Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm.
In fact, the entire speech is well worth remembering. It might have been the best political speech I’ve ever heard; certainly it’s one of the best.
But as I sat with my kids and listened to Pres. Obama talk about that journey, and about how much further we all have to go, I couldn’t help looking back, momentarily at least, to a day like this nearly twenty years ago, when I sat in the living room of my parents’ house with my mother and father, watching Pres. Bill Clinton’s first inaugural and listening to the words of the great American poet, Maya Angelou:
Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.
History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
It’s an odd confluence of events that brings that memory back to me now. Yes, it’s another inauguration day, and it’s more poignant still that Pres. Obama’s second inaugural falls on the federal holiday set aside to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., without whom we may never have lived to see the country’s first African American president elected not once but twice. On top of that, though, today would have been My Sainted Irish Mother’s 89th birthday, and that, more than anything else, is what revives the memory of that third Monday in January 1993.
My mother lived to see Pres. Obama’s first inaugural. She did not live to see his second. My father died only a little more than a year after Pres. Clinton’s first inaugural, so he lived to see neither.
I mention this because, without belaboring the point yet again, my parents were deeply involved in liberal politics, including the local civil rights movement here in our suburb on the edge of Chicago. I’ve said this all before, but these are things that defined who they were: That they flew the flag at half-mast when Dr. King was murdered in April 1968; that my father drafted the first diversity policy adopted the Oak Park Public School District some forty years ago, and did the same for village of Oak Park not long after that.
I mention it, too, because although Pres. Clinton’s election was not as monumental, not as historically significant, as Pres. Obama’s, after twelve years of Presidents Reagan and the first George Bush, the inauguration of a Democratic president felt like a sort of awakening. It felt like the country was coming to its senses again, moving away from political sloganeering, empty patriotic gestures, and a foreign policy of brinksmanship and hypocrisy, towards competence, substance, and, we hoped, genuinely liberal American values. And after crushing electoral defeats in 1980, 1984 and 1988, we had started to wonder whether we’d ever see another Democrat in the White House.
So watching Pres. Clinton’s inaugural in 1993 with my parents, not knowing that my father would not be with us much longer, or, for that matter, that my mother would live long enough to see Pres. Obama elected the first time … it was kind of special. I was happy for them; they’d worked so hard to try to leave the world a better place than they’d found it, and it seemed like we were getting back on track. Like maybe we were taking a few more steps on that long journey Pres. Obama spoke of so eloquently today.
Of course, the journey forward from that cold Monday in January 1993 was anything but a straight path. We took a lot of detours along the way. We fought wars we shouldn’t have fought, and we lost a part of our soul at Abu Ghraib, and Bagram Air Base, and Guantánamo Bay. But we have moved forward in the past four years. I believe that Pres. Obama’s done his best to get us back on that journey, and, I think, he’ll keep us moving in the right direction.
He’s right, of course; the journey is far from over. It’s uplifting to hear the President remind us of that fact, and to exhort the country to keep moving forward. It’s sad, though, to think the journey carries on without some of the people who mean the most to us. I am so happy to be able to take a part of this journey with my kids, but I wish my parents could have lived to see this part.
Garland Jeffreys, “We The People,” from Escape Artist (1981)