It was a coincidence brought about by a fluke in the calendar that the second inauguration of President Barack Obama took place on Martin Luther King Day. But the truth is that as stagecraft that could not be beat.
The first black president of the United States taking the oath of office on a day celebrating the legacy of a civil rights icon who gave his life to the struggle to create not just freedom, but opportunity for all, would seem to be something out of a movie script. But it really happened and it’s important that, as we marked the life and works of Dr. King, we also note very carefully the words spoken by Mr. Obama.
The president stated in his inaugural speech, “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, just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.”
These words were celebrated as a bold and needed statement because they linked the civil rights struggle with the fight for women’s rights and gay rights, but they are more than that. They are a dose of reality to the world, because the struggle for equality and social justice are not at an end. In Greenwich just last year there was a flare-up of a controversy over criticism of the concept of “social justice,” and it showed just how differently people can view it.
To most, the idea of social justice is about ensuring that people in all walks of life have access to opportunity and the ability to do better for themselves. To some, though, it signifies a radical plan for the redistribution of wealth that exists only in the nightmare scenarios of what Mr. Obama stands for. There is not going to be socialism and redistribution of wealth in this country. There never has been and there never will be. To tie that idea to social justice is to tie an anchor to its feet.
By linking the civil rights struggle to the efforts of women to be treated as more than wives and for gays and lesbians to be able to have the same rights and freedoms as your run-of-the-mill heterosexual person, Mr. Obama reminded us of how far we’ve come and how far we have left to go. This is also a message that we hear yearly at the YWCA of Greenwich’s moving ceremony honoring Dr. King. Yes, we have made progress as a society and, yes, tremendous changes have made this a better America, but there is much still to be done.
America cannot treat the civil rights movement as ancient and settled history. This all happened less than 50 years ago. Many quote Dr. King as saying he had a dream that his children would be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin, and miss everything that came before and after. This is used as an excuse to say racism effectively has ended and that there is no need to provide further help to those struggling for basic opportunities that people in Greenwich and other communities across the country can take for granted.
Remember that far from the benevolent figure he is treated as today, during his time Dr. King was denounced as a radical by many. Just as Mr. Obama has accusations thrown at him of being some kind of radical socialist, Dr. King was called a communist and a dangerous man by those protecting the status quo. Remember that he campaigned to help the poor and that he was vehemently opposed to the Vietnam War when that money could better have been spent improving America’s inner cities. Remember that when he was assassinated, Dr. King was standing up for organized labor.
These are not settled issues. The rights of blacks, women, gays and lesbians, and other minorities are not completed pieces of business. Mr. Obama made that clear, and to truly honor the legacy of Dr. King, it’s time for more progress to be made every day.