The inaugural speeches of U.S. Presidents are seldom very interesting. As part of a larger ceremony — admittedly a significant one in the operation of our government — they tend to be bland “what a great country” orations. I must confess that I don’t usually pay much attention. This year, however, the presence of Myrlie Evers got me watching, and I’m truly glad that I did.
President Obama can be an inspiring speaker. This Monday he delivered what may be the finest speech of his career. The handful of great inaugurals — Lincoln’s call for healing in 1865, FDR’s “nothing to fear but fear itself” in 1933, JFK’s “ask not what your country can do for you” in 1961 — have taken place at pivotal moments in our country’s history. It can be hard to spot such moments when you are living in them, but our President did just that and I don’t know that I have ever been prouder to identify as an American.
The divide between Americans — by race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and so much more — have been cast in such sharp relief by the politics and behavior of the past decade that too many of us wonder where we fit in. Obama’s theme, We the People, called out this problem and sought everyone’s participation in its solutions.
I was stunned and thrilled to hear him use the world “marginalized” in the speech. That barely prepared me for the next sentence.
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.
Having the leader of the nation clearly show the path from the first feminists to the struggle for racial equality to the struggles for LGBT rights was stunning. The participation of gay poet Richard Blanco in the inaugural events was a welcome touch. The very real words of the President, calling for that march of justice to keep moving, was overwhelming. My husband and I were both in tears, caught off guard and astounded by his direct call for justice; this is probably the most hopeful I have felt in years.
The entire speech, only 15 minutes but packed with power, is worth reading. As a social worker, I found his very specific challenge to those who write the laws as well as those who rally for social justice particularly resonant.
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.
For the first time, a President actually explicitly used the word “gay” in an inaugural. I have seldom felt so accepted as a citizen of this nation.
It’s no wonder that days later pundits and journalists and Americans of all types are still marvelling at this speech. It wasn’t just a pale summoning of an America that might be. It was an invocation of what we say we are and a challenge to all of us to live up to that promise — not just for ourselves but generations to come. Let us celebrate this President, his words, and his intentions. Let us work together to help his vision come true.