Lincoln, King and Obama’s Second Inauguration

On Sunday, for the second and final time in his life, Barack Hussein Obama will be sworn in as President of the United States by Chief Justice John Roberts.

It will be a moment drenched in historical significance.

In November Obama defeated Republican opponent Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, to gain re-election to the nation’s highest political office.

In doing so, America again chose the son of a black Kenyan father and a white American mother to lead it.

For many, Obama’s victory was further proof of the progress the country has made in the 150 years since Abraham Lincoln, another lanky lawyer from Illinois, advanced the abolition of slavery and the Congress passed the 13th Amendment.

This August will also mark 50 years since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., standing in front of the memorial created in honor of the slain 16th president, spoke without notes in a 15-minute address that instantly and permanently entered the annals of American oratory.

King’s speech in front of an estimated 250,000 people has become most well-known in the ensuring decades for its description of his dream that the sons of former slaves and slave owners would eat together at the table of brotherhood and that his children would grow up to live in a country in which they would be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.

But the substance of the speech before the articulation of King’s dream was that he and all the other marchers had come to urge the nation to make good on its promises.

In his opening paragraphs, King gave a rhetorical tip of the hat to Lincoln’s remarks at Gettysburg, perhaps his greatest address, before launching into the guts of his message:

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

For those familiar with King’s rhetoric, these opening paragraphs bring out one of the major thrusts of his arguments made in his earliest days as an impromptu leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott that catapulted him to national prominence through to his final campaign in Memphis: America had not matched its lofty promises with lived reality.

The people who were protesting were urging the nation to be true to its creed.

“And we are not wrong; we are not wrong in what we are doing,” King declared at one of the first meetings of the Montgomery Improvement Association that was convened after Rosa Parks’ arrest. “(Well) If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. (Yes sir) [applause] If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong.”

Obama will bring Lincoln and King together during his oath of office by placing his hand on two bibles stacked on top of each other.

One of these holy books, and the one he used four years ago, belonged to Lincoln.

The other was a traveling bible owned by Dr. King.

It is important to appreciate just how far the nation, pushed by the protests of thousands of ordinary Americans, has come since King’s memorable address.

Indeed, it can be tempting at this moment to look at Obama’s wins – something that literally seemed inconceivable less than 20 years ago, and conclude that America has truly become a post-racial society.

To my view, that would be a mistake.

While there has been great progress, so, too, is there much work to do before the nation can say that the promises of democracy have truly been extended to all Americans.

There are more Americans living in poverty than at any time in our nation’s history.

Black people continue to be highly overrepresented in America’s prisons.

We still live in very segregated communities.

Our children attend unequal schools.

I could go on, and you get the idea.

In his first campaign, Obama offered soaring promises of transformational change that he followed with what many felt was overly compromising governance.

This summer and fall, he advanced a more measured, less ambitious plan for America; yet since November he has shown less willingness to compromise with his implacable opponents and a stronger desire to take on politically unpopular issues like immigration reform.

The eyes of the nation and the world will be on him on Monday, when the public ceremonies take place.

Mindful of the progress the nation has made and aware of unfinished business that lies ahead, I will be watching, too.


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