Living History, Making History: The New President and the Call for Universal Human Rights


Today, Barack Obama takes the oath of office, stating, as per Article II, Section I of the U.S. Constitution:

"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

As he does so, we as Americans are coming together perhaps more than ever before, as one people, one country, inspired both by the new President and by this moment in history, joined in jubilation and celebration, rather than being joined in crisis and fear only to be divided by self-interest.  In that same spirit, people throughout the world will be crowding around televisions and radios listening and celebrating with us the promise of a new era in American leadership.  For many of us, having endured the past 8 years of unaccountable government, this day represents, in the words of Martin Luther King, a “joyous daybreak to end the long night of [our] captivity.”  It represents perhaps our last best chance to start anew in healing the world, its people and its environment.

Obama’s journey to the White House clearly has been propelled by his own tremendous intellect, talents, personality, and strength of character. But his journey has also been guided by the vision of Abraham Lincoln, the guts of Franklin Roosevelt, the call to service and commitment of John F. Kennedy, and the courage, passion, strength and vision of King.

Less consistently part of the public discourse, however, are the profound contributions of women to Obama’s success.  As he has often noted, Obama’s mother and grandmother contributed materially, spiritually, and intellectually to making him who he is today.  Without them, he has often implied, we might have no cause for celebration today, no reason for the pilgrimage of millions of people to Washington DC to witness history in the moment.  

But so many other women made this journey possible it is difficult to name them — especially those upon whose courage, vision and lives the civil rights struggle was founded — from Sojourner Truth to Mary McLeod Bethune, Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, Barbara Jordan and so many others in so many capacities.  Women who stood up for justice, who gave their time, energy and resources to help and save others, who marched and fed the marchers, housed and soothed the wounds of slaves; gave birth to babies and to ideas; women whose names we know and for whom biographies are written, and countless other women whose names we will never know because their actions were so much of the part of who they were and the fabric of their lives they just gave what they could without recognition, often dying in the process.

It is on the shoulders of these women that Obama also stands, and for whom we all now hope he will stand, in the tradition not only of Lincoln and King, but also of another American leader, Eleanor Roosevelt.  These are the people, both the women and the men throughout the world, especially those who do not have “recognition,” for whom Roosevelt also had a dream when she fought so hard for the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights some 60 years ago and who called on all people to make the realization of basic human rights—for all people—a part of their own daily struggle.  It is in Roosevelt’s words that today’s call to service and action is rooted:

"Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world."

Today, in King’s words, we have come again to the capitol to cash a check.  The architects of our history—women and men—have laid a foundation on which we can build.  And we too are calling in the promissory note to which every American and every person in the world is an heir… the basic promise of universal human rights for all people, everywhere.  I like to think this is what Obama stands for.

As King said, and as Obama’s election underscores:

We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

Moreover, to paraphrase King, with my own additions in italics:

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation and abuses of human rights everywhere to the sunlit path of racial, social, economic, and reproductive justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of these injustices to the solid rock of human rights. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

 

We are reminded: this day is not the culmination, but the beginning of work ahead.  Obama is calling us to our higher selves….to end racism and sexism, discrimination and violence, to provide each person with the basic tools they need to succeed, to promote equity and opportunity, to ensure access to basic resources such as food, energy and health care, and to celebrate the people in our lives, from the lowest-paid worker on through the new President and his family.

Today, as we celebrate Obama’s election… today, as we heed calls to service that hopefully will go beyond a one-day-per-year national holiday to become part of the fabric of our daily lives… we must take responsibility for working each day for the realization of human rights of all people, whomever they are, wherever they are.

Let’s recall the words of Eleanor Roosevelt when she said:

"The destiny of human rights is in the hands of all our citizens in all our communities."

We may never have a better chance to both live in a historic time and to bring history alive within our time.

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