WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama is putting a symbolic twist on a time-honored tradition, taking the oath of office for his second term with his hand placed not on a single Bible but on two – one owned by Martin Luther King Jr. and one by Abraham Lincoln.
The inclusion of King's Bible is particularly significant since the inauguration comes on Jan. 21, the federal holiday in honor of the civil rights leader, who delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech 50 years ago at the Lincoln Memorial. Obama will be facing the memorial as he takes the oath. King's Bible, which his children say he used early in his career as a preacher, has never been part of a presidential inauguration.
The selection of the pair of Bibles announced Thursday is richly symbolic of the struggle for equality in America, beginning with Lincoln's emancipation of slaves 150 years ago this month, through King's leadership of the civil rights movement, and ultimately to Obama becoming the nation's first black president.
Inaugural planners say Obama plans to place his left hand on the stacked Bibles held by first lady Michelle Obama as he raises his right hand to repeat the oath administered by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. It hasn't been determined which will be on top, with Obama's hand actually resting on it, but King's is larger, so it may need to be on the bottom.
Obama used the Lincoln Bible while taking the oath four years ago – the first time it had been used since the 16th president's inauguration in 1861. Obama's inaugural committee says that the president plans to use the first lady's family's Bible for a private swearing-in at the White House on Sunday, Jan. 20. Public presidential inaugurations traditionally aren't held on Sundays, even though the Constitution states that a president's new term begins automatically at noon on the 20th.
King's children describe their father's King James version as his "traveling Bible" that he took as part of a collection of books he carried with him while constantly on the road and used for inspiration and preparing sermons and speeches. His daughter Bernice King says her father marked the pages with several dates from May 1954, the same month he delivered his first sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala.
"We know our father would be deeply moved to see President Obama take the oath of office using his Bible," King's children said in a statement provided by the inaugural committee. "His traveling Bible inspired him as he fought for freedom, justice and equality, and we hope it can be a source of strength for the president as he begins his second term."
Obama also plans to honor King throughout his inaugural weekend, beginning by asking Americans to volunteer in their communities on Saturday, Jan. 19, to honor the civil right leader's legacy of service. The King family plans to participate. Inaugural planners also say there will be a float honoring King in the parade to the White House after the swearing-in ceremony.
Though there is no constitutional requirement for the use of a Bible while taking the oath, George Washington began the tradition with a Bible hastily grabbed from St. John's Masonic Lodge No. 1 for his swearing-in on April 30, 1789, in New York. Since then, presidents have typically chosen Bibles with historical or personal significance, many using family heirlooms. Obama is not the first president to select two Bibles – Harry Truman did so in 1949, Dwight Eisenhower in 1953 and Richard Nixon in 1969.
Some presidents kiss the book after completing the oath. Sometimes the Bible is open to meaningful passages, such as President George W. Bush's choice of Isaiah 40:31 – "Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint."
The Lincoln Bible is part of the Library of Congress collections. The Supreme Court clerk bought the Bible, bound in burgundy velvet with a gold-washed white metal rim and heavily gilded edges, especially for Lincoln's swearing-in.
The first lady's Robinson family Bible was a gift from her late father, Fraser Robinson III, to his mother, LaVaughn Delores Robinson, on Mother's Day 1958. The first lady's grandmother was the first black female manager of a Moody Bible Institute's bookstore, and her son's present was her favorite, inaugural planners say.
They also say Vice President Joe Biden will use a Bible with a Celtic cross on the cover that has been in his family for 120 years. Biden has used the Bible every time he's been sworn into federal office, back to his entry in the Senate 40 years ago.
ZeBarney Thorne Phillips
At the inaugurations of Franklin D. Roosevelt on Jan. 20, 1937 and Jan. 20, 1941, the invocation was delivered by ZeBarney Thorne Phillips, an Episcopalian and the Chaplain of the United States Senate. Photo: Chaplain of the United States Senate ZeBarney Thorne Phillips delivering prayer to open the session, 1939.
Bishop Angus Dun
At the fourth inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, on Jan. 20, 1945, the invocation was delivered by Bishop Angus Dun, an Episcopalian and then Bishop of Washington. Photo: A crowd gathers outside the south portico of the White House to attend Franklin D. Roosevelt's 4th Inaugural speech January 20, 1945 in Washington D.C. (Photo by National Archive/Newsmakers)
Rev. Edward Hughes Pruden
On January 20, 1949, Rev. Edward Hughes Pruden, a Baptist of the First Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., delivered the invocation for the inauguration of Harry S. Truman. Photo: The inaugural stand in from the the Capitol before the inauguration of Harry S. Truman.
Patrick A. O’Boyle
On Jan. 20, 1953 at the inaugural of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the invocation was delivered by Patrick A. O’Boyle, the Catholic Archbishop of Washington. Photo: Dwight D. Eisenhower takes the Oath of Office as the President of the United States during his Inauguration January 20, 1953 in Washington D.C. Also pictured is former president Harry S. Truman, left, and Richard M. Nixon, right. (Photo by National Archive/Newsmakers)
Rev. Edward L. R. Elson
On Jan. 21, 1957, at the second inaugural of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the invocation was delivered by Rev. Edward L. R. Elson, a Presbyterian and then the Chaplain of the United States Senate. Photo: Reverend Edward L. R. Elson, former Chaplain of the United States Senate. He is shown wearing military ribbons reflecting U.S. Army chaplain service.
His Eminence Cardinal Richard Cushing
At the Jan. 20, 1961 inaugural of John F. Kennedy, the invocation was given by His Eminence Cardinal Richard Cushing, a Catholic. Photo: John F. Kennedy gives his inauguration address after being sworn in.
Archbishop Robert E. Lucey
At the Jan. 20, 1965 inaugural of Lyndon B. Johnson, Archbishop Robert E. Lucey, a Catholic, delivered the invocation. Photo: Archibishop Robert E. Lucey Co Rentmeester//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images).
Rev. Charles Ewbank Tucker
On Jan. 20, 1969, at the inaugural of Richard Nixon, the invocation was given by Rev. Charles Ewbank Tucker, bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Photo: Richard Nixon being inaugurated.
Rev. E. V. Hill
At the Jan. 20, 1973 inaugural of Richard M. Nixon, the invocation was delivered by the Rev. E. V. Hill, pastor of the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Photo: Archbishop Iakovos greets Richard M. Nixon at his second inauguration. The Greek Orthodox leader gave a prayer at the ceremony.
Rev. William Cannon
Rev. William Cannon, a United Methodist, delivered the invocation at the Jan. 20, 1977 inaugural of Jimmy Carter. Photo: Jimmy Carter at his inauguration.
Rev. Donn Moomaw
At the Jan. 20, 1981 inaugural of Ronald Reagan, the invocation (and benediction) was delivered by Rev. Donn Moomaw, a Presbyterian and pastor of Bel Air Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles. Photo: Rev. Donn Moomaw gives the invocation at the 1981 inauguration of President Ronald Reagan. Also pictured are House Speaker Tip O'Neill, Vice President George H. W. Bush, President Reagan, Barbara Bush and Nancy Reagan.
Rev. Timothy S. Healy
On January 21, 1985, at the second inaugural of Ronald Reagan, the invocation was given by Rev. Timothy S. Healy, a Catholic and then-president of Georgetown University. Photo: Ronald Reagan's 1985 presidential inauguration.
On Jan. 20, 1989, at the inauguration of George H. W. Bush, the Rev. Billy Graham, a Southern Baptist leader, delivered the invocation. (Here is the <a href="http://www2.wheaton.edu/bgc/archives/inaugural03.htm">full text</a>.) Photo: George H. W. Bush, with his wife, Barbara, and the Rev. Billy Graham at his inauguration.
On Jan. 20, 1993 and Jan. 20, 1997, at both of Bill Clinton's inaugurations, the Rev. Billy Graham, a Southern Baptist leader, delivered the invocation. (Here is the <a href="http://www2.wheaton.edu/bgc/archives/inaugural04.htm">full text from 1993</a> and <a href="http://www2.wheaton.edu/bgc/archives/inaugural08.htm">1997</a>.) Photo: US President Bill Clinton bows his head as Reverend Billy Graham gives the invocation at the beginning of the inaugural ceremony 20 January on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Clinton was sworn in for a second term as U.S. President. (LUKE FRAZZA/AFP/Getty Images)
Rev. Franklin Graham
At the Jan. 20, 2001 inaugural of George W. Bush, the invocation was given by Rev. Franklin Graham, a Southern Baptist. (Here is the <a href="http://www.angelfire.com/in/HisName/invocationbenediction.html">full text</a>.) Photo: George W. Bush delivers his inaugural address.
Rev. Luis León
At the Jan. 20, 2005 inauguration of George W. Bush, Rev. Luis León, an Episcopalian and rector of St. John's Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square (Washington, D.C.), delivered the invocation. (Here is the <a href="http://www.angelfire.com/in/HisName/inauguration2005.html#invocation">full text</a>.) Photo: With his left hand resting on a family Bible, President George W. Bush takes the oath of office.
Rev. Dr. Rick Warren
Rev. Dr. Rick Warren, a Baptist and pastor of the Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., gave the invocation at the Jan. 20, 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama. (Here is the <a href="http://www.boston.com/news/local/articles_of_faith/2009/01/rick_warrens_in.html">full text</a>.) Photo: Barack Obama bows his head during the invocation by Rev. Rick Warren at his inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States of America on the West Front of the Capitol January 20, 2009 in Washington, DC. Obama becomes the first African-American to be elected to the office of President in the history of the United States. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)