More than 1 million people filled the streets of the nation’s capital. Viewers from across the globe were glued to television sets. They all bore witness to history being made — again.
Earlier this week, on the day in which the nation honored slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., the year that marks the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, the first African American President of the United States took the oath of office for his second term.
The event confirmed Barack Obama’s place in a rare club for U.S. Presidents: Only 13 presidents in history have been re-elected to a second term and only three Democrats in the past 75 years. The ceremony’s significance was that his return to the Oval Office could not be viewed as some political fluke, rejection of an unpopular president nor a knee-jerk response to an economy in freefall as some noted in 2009. He was America’s choice – a diverse America in which African Americans, women, gays, and youth now play a larger role in national discourse, policy-making and governing. A new agenda is being set.
We witnessed a confident, self-assured Obama who spent his first term locked in partisan battles with Republican obstructionists rooting for the failure of his presidency. Despite continuous Byzantine maneuvers and blatant acts of disrespect to the man and the office, the first-term president managed to revive an economy; rescue a financial system; resurrect the auto industry; reform health care; end a bloody, unpopular war while winding down another; and deliver justice to the mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks: Osama bin Laden.
So as he delivered his inaugural address to mark the beginning of his second term, Obama paid homage to the centuries-old battles for equality as he offered his sweeping vision of inclusion and opportunity.
“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,” he told the cheering masses.
“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…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…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.”
He discussed the further development of a nation that embraces “tolerance and opportunity, human dignity and justice” while calling for the need to “harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, reach higher.” At the same time, he declared that we must “reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future, ” committing to social safety net programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security as well as education funding – all of which have fueled and will continue to spark intense debates among Democrats and Republicans during past and upcoming budget battles. Moreover, he spoke to the preservation of future generations by responding to “the threat of climate change” and “that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.”
Although details of his second term agenda will be spelled out in his Feb. 12 State of the Union address, Obama made it clear that he seeks to promote an activist government to address this myriad of concerns.
The ceremony also served as his clarion call for all citizens to become more involved in moving the nation forward. Obama made it clear that the inauguration is more than a president taking the oath of office but a reaffirmation of the need for individual and collective action. In fact, that spirit was apparent in the invocation delivered by Myrlie Evers, former chair of the NAACP and wife of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, who shared the struggle of the Civil Rights Movement, and presence of today’s civic advocates Rev. Al Sharpton, National Urban League CEO Marc Morial, NAACP President Benjamin Jealous and Martin Luther King III on the platform.
Now that the celebration is over, African American civic and business leaders are seeking to have the current occupant in the White House address a range of problems that still confront the black community, among them, alarming high rates of unemployment and poverty and financing for small businesses. Another issue: a continuation of diversity at the cabinet level and throughout the federal government. In the past few weeks, Obama has gained criticism for filling cabinet vacancies for secretaries of state, defense and treasury with white men. Although he has yet to replenish his cabinet, his selections to replace secretaries of labor, interior, energy as well as U.S. trade representative and EPA administrator – all filled by minorities and women during the first term – will come under increased scrutiny. In fact, NAACP’s Jealous has called for the next Supreme Court appointee to be an African American woman.
In talking with radio host Warren Ballentine on his show last week about the job creation and training initiative currently being developed by a group of African American civic leaders, he stressed that “we need to move quickly on these issues. We only have 14 months,” identifying the amount of time before congressmen start campaigning for 2014 mid-term elections and the presidency starts entering lame-duck status.
I watched the Inauguration at the “Celebration of Democracy” brunch held by the Executive Leadership Council, the organization comprised of senior executives of major corporations. The gathering of 200-plus swelled with pride and toasted the moment. Ronald Parker, the group’s president & CEO, used the ceremony to galvanize the troops.
“We must use this moment to spur us to meet our goals,” he told the crowd, “to increase diversity and expand our power within the executive suite.”
As part of the ELC’s call to action, the group has developed a plan to expand the number of African American CEOs, C-suite executives and corporate directors at each of the largest publicly-traded corporations.
So the Inauguration serves as not only a new beginning for the president but for those who truly seek to keep government as an activist tool that has a role in increasing unemployment, expanding business opportunities, protecting voting rights, eradicating poverty and promoting diversity. That level of activism did not stop with pulling a lever in November or engaging in pomp and circumstance this week. It requires the collective action of leaders and foot soldiers to challenge the administration to address such problems and set priorities; make a do-nothing Congress accountable for their actions; and ensure our voices are heard. It is a new beginning for inclusion and activism.
The president has eloquently stated that it takes the voice, action and will of the people to put the nation on the course to a more perfect union. From the streets to corporate suites, that will be required of all of us during the next four years.