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

What do Lincoln and Obama have in common?

We all know that both are from Illinois, but did you know that both were elected on November 6?

Abraham Lincoln was first elected on November 6, 1860.  Barack Obama was elected to his second term yesterday, November 6, 1012.

When my husband mentioned this yesterday, I thought this was another good omen and it, like the 7/Eleven, Nickelodeon, and Scholastic polls was correct.

From This Day in History

Abraham Lincoln is elected the 16th president of the United States over a deeply divided Democratic Party, becoming the first Republican to win the presidency. Lincoln received only 40 percent of the popular vote but handily defeated the three other candidates: Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge, Constitutional Union candidate John Bell, and Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas, a U.S. senator for Illinois.

Tony Kushner accepts a Puffin

Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, was awarded The Nation Institute Puffin/Nation prize for creative citizenship on December 5, 2011.  He won the Pulitzer for “Angels in America” in 1993.  Last June Kushner was first awarded, then not awarded and finally awarded a honorary degree from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, part of the City University of New York System.   The controversy centered on Kushner’s alleged failure to support Israel.  The process of being chosen for the Puffin had a lot less drama , but his acceptance speech had it all:  drama, humor and a call to citizenship.  Published in the Nation, it is well worth reading or viewing.

So what is citizenship?  Kushner defines it this way

…the whole point of citizenship is that one admits to a personal stake, and to the potential derivation of benefit, in giving to and sacrificing for the community. One recognizes one’s self in the community, one identifies an important part of the self, a part that deserves tending and nurturing and attention, even therapeutic attention, as much as does the selfish self, which of course receives infinite attention, tending, caring, nurturance. When we step into our citizen selves, we step into that part of our lives, our souls, that exists only in relationship to others. As a citizen, one occupies that part of one’s life, soul, self that is at least as communal, collective, social and contractual as it is monadic, individual, replete.

Citizenship, in other words, is not simply a duty, though of course it is that, nor is it merely a privilege, though it’s that too. It’s a blessing, by which I guess I mean that there is beauty, grace, magic, charisma, charm in citizenship; it’s a gift handed down to us from generations of forebears who thought and fought and struggled and died to create this thing we inherit and advance, this recent, numinous evolutionary phase of humanity.

Kushner, who is working a film about Abraham Lincoln, continues

…Maybe it’s because I’ve spent the better part of five years trying to make up a plausible version of Abraham Lincoln, that utterly implausible man. Maybe because of the time I’ve spent with his words and his life and the inexplicable fact of his existence, I’ve come to consider what Walt Whitman said may have been Lincoln’s greatest virtue, his “longwaitingness,” as a cardinal principle of democratic progress. Maybe because of Lincoln, I’ve come to believe that an unexamined, reflexive excess of even righteous impatience is an unaffordable means of keeping oneself warm in the chilly climate of democratic politics. Maybe it’s Lincoln’s fault that I’ve come to believe that electoral politics, and all that goes with it, is the last, best hope we have.

(Here I interrupted my prepared speech and risked spontaneity in response to seeing Jesse Jackson seated at a nearby table. His campaign for president in 1984 had been mentioned by the evening’s host, Melissa Harris-Perry, and I took the chance to thank Reverend Jackson for his speech at the Democratic convention that year. I’ve often quoted him admonishing those on the left who were considering not voting: “Don’t you walk away from that vote! People died for the right to vote!”)

All of which is to say—and this is what my whole speech was going to be about, but instead maybe I’ll write an essay and submit it to The Nation: In the upcoming election, we must must must hang on to the Senate, we must must must recapture the House, we must must must must must must must re-elect Barack Obama President of the United States of the Reality-Based Community! And a goddamned great president—yes, I said it, I said it out loud!—a great president he is!

(A great president, by the way, is not the same as a great progressive. A great president is a plausible progressive who achieves significant and useful and recognizably progressive things, which is very, very hard to do in a democracy, and which President Obama has inarguably done. We can argue about that later.)

And almost best of all is what he is doing with his prize money

…So, for the sake of my soul and my psyche and in the name of creative citizenship, I’m going to donate this mortifying, beautiful money [$100,000] to establish an endowed scholarship at John Jay. I was dazzled by the students I met at the John Jay commencement last June; they’re as impressive and promising and brave and inspiring and awe-inspiring as the CUNY board of trustees isn’t. At John Jay I’ve met students and faculty committed to thinking about law and order in larger contexts, to understanding law as it relates to community and to social and economic justice; they’re committed to building, to creating, to citizenship, to progress, to justice.

Tony Kushner has come full circle. 

 a puffin in Maine.