Civil Rights and President Obama: the Second Inaugural Address

“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,”

Inaugural Addresses, particularly second addresses are not generally remembered.  There is John F. Kennedy’s “Ask Not” address and there is Lincoln’s Second address.  You could throw in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Second.

Lincoln said these now famous words

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

FDR noted the 150th anniversary of the Constitutional Convention and spoke about the role of government.

“We of the Republic sensed the truth that democratic government has innate capacity to protect its people against disasters once considered inevitable, to solve problems once considered unsolvable. We would not admit that we could not find a way to master economic epidemics just as, after centuries of fatalistic suffering, we had found a way to master epidemics of disease. We refused to leave the problems of our common welfare to be solved by the winds of chance and the hurricanes of disaster.”

and pointed out that success would be judged not by adding wealth to those who already had wealth but whether it could

“provide enough for those who [had] too little.”

Add to the great second inaugural speeches of Roosevelt and Lincoln, Barack Obama’s.

John Nichols writing in the Nation said Obama’s speech “charts the arc of history that bends toward justice.”  The President took on  the unfinished business of civil rights – in equal pay for women, voting rights for minorities, and equal rights for gay and lesbian Americans.  He said

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.

That is our generation’s task, to make these works, these rights, these values of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness real for every American.

He echoed FDR

“We do not believe that in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few,”

I think the speech showed that second terms can liberate and that his second term will see him push unapologetically for an agenda that includes everyone – even Republicans if they choose to listen.

Photographs: Chang W. Lee/The New York Times and Doug Mills/The New York Times

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