It was hard not to be overcome with emotion while watching the star-studded “We Are One” inauguration celebration from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington yesterday. No need to bear the harsh elements mind you, we all watched it in the comfort of our living rooms (thanks, HBO, for the free viewing). And it was a stirring spectacle from start to finish. Bruce Springsteen singing “The Rising”, accompanied by a legion of gospel singers, Garth Brooks doing a rousing medley of “American Pie”, “Shout” and “We Shall Be Free”, Usher and Shakira holding their own alongside Stevie Wonder for a spunky “Higher Ground”, etc. And it was hard not to tear up when Bono of U2 sang about “Early morning, April 4/The shots rang out/In the Memphis sky” during “Pride (In the Name of Love)” on the day before we celebrate what would have been the 80th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King and two days before his ultimate legacy is finally sworn in as President of “this great land”, as Bono said. “This isn’t even my land”, he continued, but clearly he and his band members were honored, along with a host of others, to be able to take part in history and really live this momentous occasion.
The setting, visually, was obviously striking. Hundreds of thousands of people, braving the cold, and standing before one of this country’s most enduring symbols of democracy, and up there on the podium, in a chair, one of the most beloved Presidents we’ve ever had. A man who came from modest beginnings. A man who worked hard and persevered. A man who had a lot of enemies before he ascended to the Highest Office. A man who created the very same kind of “whistle-stop” train tour that brought another hard-working man close to the people last Saturday. And ultimately, Mr. Obama has always had a lot of Abraham Lincoln in his spirit. And the throngs of people, young and old, as diverse a crowd you will ever see, were clamoring to see him as almost an stunning achievement of what this country can produce.
And there he was. Appearing, finally, and amid an enormously enthusiastic crowd that had come for him. He appeared a little humbled, but also cool and collected, in what is probably his trademark personal style and one that we will all have to get used to perhaps. He thanked the crowd, and then reminded us of the profound challenges that we all face as a country, in the face of all of these celebrations. “Only a handful of generations”, he began, “have been asked to confront challenges as serious as the ones we face right now.” And he continued:
Millions of Americans are losing their jobs and their homes
They’re worried about how they’ll afford college for their kids or
pay the stack of bills on their kitchen tables. And most of all, they
are anxious and uncertain about their future, about whether this
generation of Americans will be able to pass on what’s best about
this country to our children and their children. I won’t pretend that
meeting any of these challenges will be easy. It will take more than a
month or a year, and it will likely take many. Along the way, there
will be setbacks and false starts and days that test our resolve as a
We are living one of the most trying economic times this country has ever experienced, and it will not just be Obama’s leadership, stimulus packages and bailout proposals that will carry us through. It will demand that all of us work together and find ways to contribute, make sacrifices and understand that our collective well-being is being tested here.
As I looked out today and remembered that this was the day that we celebrate the birthday of Dr. King, I also realized that King’s legacy was not simply that he had the courage to fight for the reality of equality, but he also sought to inculcate values of community and hard work for millions of people. Thus today is now known as a day of service, an occasion to honor a hero by becoming a hero to your community. This is the kind of togetherness that truly breaks down barriers. And it’s fitting that on the eve of stepping on to the Capitol steps tomorrow, carrying Abraham Lincoln’s same Bible, Barack Obama took a paint brush and helped renovate a homeless shelter today in Washington DC. And all across America, countless others did the same –a soup kitchen here, a construction project there, a street clean-up, etc. Why does this matter now? It matters because at this critical juncture in our social history we are reminded that we are not all that different from each other. As will i. am sang in his just-released new Obama-inspired anthem, it’s now “my America, your America, our America”.
Barack Obama is not just going to be a President for our times, full of confidence and vigor, but he will remind us that we all have a collective responsibility to really become more informed and participate in this thing called government. I like to think that Obama’s victory was a rejection of all that has been negative and polarizing, cynical and entrenched, about our feelings about our leadership and being fully represented by those whom we elect and ultimately trust. We have been lied to and pandered to, taken to war over the flimsiest of evidence when it was all about a group of people who wanted to satisfy their egos and if we were to ever disagree with them, we were deemed as unpatriotic and un-American. We have let go of a presidency in which dissenters were mocked and told they were not worthy, where every piece of information was made secret, so that no one would dare suspect that true treachery and mendacity was taking place inside. On November 4, I think, we came to realize that we could no longer burnish this fabric of a nation that, for all of its diverse voices, somehow tossed aside the cleavages and felt that this man, and this moment, was now and we needed to take hold decisively.
Pete Seeger, all 89 years old young, is up there at the Lincoln Memorial, singing his “This Land Is Your Land” next to Bruce Springsteen. What a sight. He is singing verses that I frankly hadn’t sung myself since the fourth grade. What was more poignant were the lyrics that Seeger would speak that harkened back to the Great Depression, a poignant reminder that we are not all that far removed from those economic realities. The song captures the hope that this truly is a nation of disparate elements, and that we are all made richer because of it.
As we look to tomorrow and the swearing-in of a man who was able to rise to the top in his own development, despite what society would usually prescribe for someone of his background –our nation’s first Black President—we hope that this becomes a transformative moment for us as a people, and that we can tell future generations that we were witness to the beginning of a new era. Because we were there. Because we wanted a leader who listened to us and was thoughtful and inclusive. Because he wanted to have a government that was transparent because he reminded us that the White House is actually the people’s house. Because he cared, and was not afraid to take risks. Because he decided that a multilateral approach to foreign relations and diplomacy were key in making the US the envy of the world, rather than a pariah. Because he is an intellectual but not so bookish that he lost sight of actually reaching out to people. Because he represents the hope of so many children out there tomorrow who will look up and see someone who looks just like them —and say, “I can do this and I have to work hard to get there”.
Finally, as a way of bringing this day full circle, and as a reminder of the almost divine coincidence of the days that we celebrate the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King and the realization of his dream tomorrow in the form of the 44th US President being sworn in, here is a remarkable video clip just unearthed by the BBC today. In it, in an interview in 1964, Dr. King is asked when he thinks the US will elect a Black President. It’s astonishing not just to see this never-before-seen clip, but also how fairly prescient Dr. King was –give or take several years. But also how hopeful and wise.