Rarely have I gotten to experience the intersection of history over the years let alone in the course of one day. From watching President’s Obama Inauguration on Martin Luther King Day to taking in the movie Lincoln that evening, I had a full day of historical connections last Monday and what a treat it turned out to be.
Until I watched the movie, I never understood the depth of courage and intellect required of President Lincoln to muster the votes for passing the 13th Amendment to our Constitution which abolished slavery. I also learned that had Lincoln and his fellow Republicans failed back then, America’s path to more civil rights and equalities would have been longer and more arduous after the Civil War. Although it is a hundred and fifty years later, the movie made it interesting to speculate about what America might look like today if the vote had failed (only passed by two votes). Would we be here now…swearing in a black President on a day memorializing a Civil Rights Leader?
President Lincoln’s courage and success was rooted not just in his adamant pursuit of a goal. Perhaps even more importantly, slavery is gone forever because President Lincoln defied all counsel and his own powerful emotions to extend his hand to his opponents; to seek to understand their common goals, and to craft a solution that was imperfect but successful. There were losers: the Confederacy lost slavery, Lincoln lost his life. But both sides ended the bloodiest war in American history, and from today’s viewpoint, we can all see that the cessation of human bondage was the only right answer for an America in which freedom is our highest ideal.
President Lincoln could never have imagined the progress made. He could not have envisioned being followed by a man whose passion and oratory skills matched his – Martin Luther King. Did you know that Dr. King began his “I Have a Dream” speech with lines from the Emancipation Proclamation? And in turn President Obama made several references to Dr. King’s “footprints along this great Mall” in his second inauguration. In some ways the second time is more significant than the first because the second time validates the normalcy of the first . The less of a deal electing a President’s of color becomes, the more color blindness we exhibit.
From America’s ugly, twisted roots of racism, slavery and brutality to today’s inauguration we have come far as an aspiring enlightened society. But like his predecessor President Lincoln and his mentor Dr. King, President Obama strongly reminded us that our journey is far from over. Calling for collective action, President Obama declared, “You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time -- not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals.”
If we have come so far, certainly with the same set of values and ideals we can come together and address the big challenges of the day – recovering economy, federal debt, immigration, climate change, and gun control? Can hope deliver on the waves of American idealism? Will Congress actually act? Will the President lead us in working closely with Congress?
Here too, President Obama echoes the path of President Lincoln in seeking solutions that may not be perfect, in calling upon a Nation to heal for the common good. “Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time – but it does require us to act in our time. For now decisions are upon us, and we cannot afford delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect.”
This is my renewed hope from a day of historical intersections: that we as a people will find the grace to seek our common ideals and solutions rather than attack our differences. It is a hope that politicians and pundits are capable of shredding…the very next morning. Perhaps instead we should listen to poets. Here is the last paragraph of Richard Blanco’s inaugural poem ‘One Today’: