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President Obama Brings Hope to the Nation and the World February 1, 2009

Posted by Suzanne Robinson in Uncategorized.
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Throngs of people descended on Washington D.C. and well-wishers the world over gathered together last Tuesday to watch as Barack Obama took the oath of office and before our eyes became our president.  Most people, here and abroad, were filled with a new hope and a nearly unbridled optimism.  President Obama has inspired us with his own hopefulness and his courageous belief that good people, working together, can change our world.   He has reached us with his mantra, which, as he wanted, we’ve adopted as our own.  “Yes we can.”  Times are tough here, everybody knows that, but we feel stronger because President Obama is moving his family into the White House.

 In 1861, Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as the first Republican President of the United States in dark days. The question that demanded an answer was what would become of slavery.  Slaveholders in the south argued angrily that they should be able to take their ‘property’ with them west.  But resistance was strong.  Former Whigs and Democrats, in 1856, left their old political homes to form the Republican Party in opposition to slavery’s expansion into the western territories.  Activists in the new party went further and called for an immediate end to slavery, and many southerners feared an end to their way of life.

 And 1861 found Frederick Douglas, a charismatic black abolitionist, courageously leading those who called out for an end to slavery and for equal rights for African Americans.  Douglas, while he maintained that Lincoln was the white man’s president who also helped blacks, said too that Lincoln was the only white leader with whom he had spoken who showed not one bit of prejudice toward black Americans.  And, as the nation fought and Lincoln began to work toward the emancipation of slaves, he and President Lincoln developed a warm relationship.

 It was a frighteningly dark time in our history.  In the four short months between the day President Lincoln was elected and the day he took office, seven southern states withdrew from the Union, formed the Confederate States of America, and inaugurated Jefferson Davis President.  Causing further alarm were the stirrings of secessionist sentiments in the five border states.  Though Lincoln remained hopeful to the end that war could be prevented, within weeks of his taking office, the country was fighting a long, brutal war with itself that would cost the lives of more than 600,000 Americans.  

 Lincoln did not live to see the people, in December 1865, ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, which ended slavery across the nation.   This was a tremendous step forward in the battle for equality, still the struggle necessarily continued after America freed African Americans from the bondage of slavery – for there were fundamental and urgent questions to answer about what that liberty would mean in their day, and in our day.

 In 1961, one hundred years later, John F. Kennedy became our first Catholic President on a platform of civil rights, promising laws prohibiting employment discrimination, the right to an adequate education, the right of labor to organize, and, among other things, an increase in the minimum wage to meet the right to earn enough to provide adequately for oneself and one’s family. 

 And in 1961, Martin Luther King, Jr., that generation’s great dissenting leader, led the march for equality under the law for those African Americans who still did not possess the right to sit next to a white person and mind their own business.  Their struggle would continue after Kennedy’s assassination, after King’s assassination, after Robert Kennedy was taken.  (By 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson had passed more civil rights legislation than any other President in our history, most notably President Kennedy’s Civil Rights Act (1964), which banned discrimination in public accommodations, and Johnson’s Voting Rights Act (1965), which prohibited states from denying citizens the vote on the basis of their race.)  But, even after these struggles the work wasn’t over, as, by way of but one example of too many to list, states refused and resisted the right of black children to attend the schools of white children. 

 And too that year, in the heat of the summer, the man who became our president last Tuesday was born in Kansas, in the very heart of America, to an intellectual African father and a bright, idealistic white American mother.  In his books, he tells us that he grew up with love, guidance and nurturance, with the childhood privilege of attending an elite school, and with the knowledge that life is complicated.  He earned coveted slots at Columbia University and Harvard Law through hard work and natural intelligence.  By the accounts of many who’ve watched him over the years, though, the Barack Obama we see today has grown into the man he is through deep reflection and disciplined commitment.  

 President Obama, like many of us, sees in Abraham Lincoln an inspirational leader.  And the two men share common characteristics and ideals.  Lincoln, too, was an eloquent speaker, a man of supreme confidence and ambition.   Lincoln, too, was a man who grew into his own intentionally and thoughtfully.  Obama, like Lincoln, believes in the power of reason and of passion.  And Lincoln said, too, while finding it difficult to wait his turn in hard times, “There is one president at a time.”  Importantly, they share a deep reverence for the ideal of equality expressed in the Declaration of Independence.  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”  President Obama calls these words, “our starting point as Americans… our common creed.”  President Lincoln said that equality is government’s “leading object.” 

 Through our struggles, America has been blessed with its share of great leaders.  We have long had great African American leaders, dissenting leaders who’ve carried a heavy weight and won hard battles – many through sheer determination.  But President Obama is the first African American President of the United States of America.  And whether fair or not, the mantle he carries brings with it an additional responsibility to the ideal of equality.  From the beginning our country has struggled in answering this call.  We’ve fought bitterly.  At times we have covered our ears and our eyes.  But in times of bold leadership and engaged citizenship we have expanded liberty’s reach and deepened its impact.   We have put a lot of bad ways behind us, and under President Obama’s leadership we hope to see the march for equality gain some good ground.  We hope to see the guiding light of equality take root in his policies, and foremost in his approach to rebuilding our economy. 

 President Obama ran a long, hopeful campaign that, too, was important because it showed us how elections can be won with dignity – and it modeled well, though not perfectly, the values it espoused.  Now he takes office and his agenda is filled to overflowing.  Americans are focused on our economy because is in tatters at a time when our country is deeply in debt, and because what everyone agrees on is that it will get worse.  We’re worried about our jobs, and with them our insurance, our house payments.  We’re worried because our kids aren’t learning well enough and we fear they will struggle to find security in tomorrow’s world.   But despite our fear, we are truly hopeful.  We don’t know how the world will look in two, four, or eight years…  But today we celebrate and feel like things are better. 

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