A national holiday, an inaugural address and the continuum of progress

21 Jan
obama_king

President Obama at the Martin Luther King Memorial in D.C. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

Imagine it. The United States of America inaugurating its first black president not once, but twice.

My father probably could never have imagined it. Martin Luther King, Jr. could only have dreamed it.

Yet their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are witnessing it under sunny skies in DC and on the airwaves across the nation.

That we are celebrating Inauguration Day on the day we celebrate King’s life,  reminds us of the continuum of progress.

When civil rights leader Myrlie Evers-Williams came up to the podium  to give the inaugural invocation, I was reminded of  the assassination of her husband, Medgar.  In 1963, in my lifetime, it was  heresy in many quarters to suggest that a black person should exercise one vote, much less amass enough votes to be elected to the highest office of the land.

When Beyoncé came to the microphone to sing the “Star- Spangled Banner,” I could not help but think about all of those columns my father wrote singing the praises of Marian Anderson, whom the Daughters of the American Revolution deemed unfit to perform in Constitution Hall.

When I see Michelle, Malia and Sasha Obama, and Marian Robinson in all their beauty and elegance, I can’t help but think about my Essence magazine days, when mainstream advertisers didn’t want to associate their products with black women.

When President Obama included the Stonewall Riots in the same breath as Seneca Falls and Selma, it indicated how far he and the nation have come on the issue of gay rights.

When this year’s inaugural laureate, Richard Blanco, the son of Cuban exiles, offered his poem “One Today,” I thought of those like my father, born in other countries, who believed so much in America’s promise even as they were keenly aware of its shortcomings.

As President Obama said in his Inaugural address:

“Through it all, we have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society’s ills can be cured through government alone. Our celebration of initiative and enterprise; our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, are constants in our character.

But we have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action .  .  .

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.

Let each of us now embrace, with solemn duty and awesome joy, what is our lasting birthright. With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history, and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom.”

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