With those four words, Barack Obama set sail – our Captain of the American enterprise with us as the crew – on a new journey in American history: a history that all but chafed against such an event that occurred today in Washington, D.C. With Obama’s inauguration, the words contained in the Declaration of Independence proclaiming that “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights” were pulled from the yellow pages of history to take on new life, never ringing more true or holding more promise.
Our Nation’s history is replete with human tragedy – from our decimation of Native Americans to the slave trade and slavery with its horrendous treatment of an entire race of fellow human beings to our fear, loathing, and internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. But it is also brimming with triumphs from the birth of this great country upon the shoulders of our Founding Fathers to the building of the most powerful country in the world to the accomplishments of thousands of Americans too numerous to list.
Today – today – what seemed impossible in my generation – the 50s and 60s – has come true. In high school, I watched on TV almost daily the hatred spewed from the lips of southern politicians and public officials as they battled against desegregation and the entrance of blacks into southern schools and universities. They stood arrogantly and defiantly in the doorways of their states’ public educational institutions, bracing themselves against what would be the inevitable mingling of blacks with whites.
The most basic rights that we today take for granted and accept were long denied to African-Americans. The simple act of sitting at a lunch counter waiting to be served was against the law. The police battled peaceful demonstrators with brutal force, using fire hoses spraying torrents of water strong enough to knock those targeted off their feet. Billyclubs were used indiscriminately and with no remorse.
Presidents Kennedy and Johnson were both called upon to send in National Guard troops to ensure that the law desegregating the schools would be obeyed. Day after violent day, I watched as citizens fought to prevent other citizens from being treated with dignity and enjoying the basic, common rights already attendant to being white.
But integration in the southern schools was not the only racial barrier that finally fell in the 1960s. From early colonial days, laws were set in place to criminalize the cohabitation and marriage of whites and blacks, fueled by reliance on Biblical admonitions and a fear of “mongrolizing” the white race. Not until the case of Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967), did the last remnants of the anti-miscegenation statutes fall. The Supreme Court made clear by a 9-0 vote that the right to choose with whom you wish to spend your life is a fundamental right not to be abridged by outdated theories and racist ideologies.
Today, we move forward to a new beginning – a new vision of our country where the words of our founders ring true. Their words were set down in our Declaration and in our Constitution – a Constitution that is the shortest in the world and the longest-lived in the world. And just as our Founders planned, despite the crises we have suffered throughout our history, today we witnessed a peaceful and seamless transition, not only from one Commander in Chief to another, but also from words set forth on parchment over 200 years ago across the centuries to a fulfillment of that promise – “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
And I cried. And I cried this weekend watching the concert at the Lincoln Memorial remembering how I stood on that very spot two years ago looking up at the cream-colored face of Abraham Lincoln. I cried watching Barack Obama taking the Oath of Office. I cried in remembrance of those struggles of the past two centuries and especially those that I remember from the 60s. And I cried with happiness and a new-felt freedom for the promises that I unabashedly knew lived in our Constitution and the realization that those promises have finally come to pass.
Photo Credit: New York Times (Peter Baker)