Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and the Arc of Time

As we marked the 150th anniversary on November 19 of this powerful speech, the same struggle continues today in communities from coast to coast -- the fight for freedom and equality is far from over.
12/05/2013 01:28 pm ET Updated Feb 04, 2014

When President Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address 150 years ago, the prevailing message was that the blood spilled on that battlefield and throughout the Civil War was not just to preserve the divided young nation, but was also a fight for freedom and equality.

As we marked the 150th anniversary on November 19 of this powerful speech, the same struggle continues today in communities from coast to coast -- the fight for freedom and equality is far from over. Even as Lincoln spoke so eloquently, the majorities on the warring sides, both North and South, held steep beliefs in a racial hierarchy. Most of the nation believed that only white men deserved the privileges and full benefits of the American democracy.

The Founding Fathers of the United States believed this idea of a hierarchy of human value based on superficial physical traits, like skin pigmentation, was ordained by the Creator. For 87 years, the nation believed that people relegated to the bottom of this racial hierarchy did not have inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And let us be clear, since inception of these United States, it has been a nation of liberty and justice for some.

This arc of time must be viewed with deep humility. The legacy of racial hierarchy casts a long shadow on our collective consciousness. It plays out in fierce partisan divides within Congress and state governments; our mapping of red and blue political geographies, the racially segregated neighborhoods throughout the country and subsequent divides in health, well-being, incarceration rates, employment and educational opportunities and wealth.

We are a nation that enslaved, killed and or exploited people of color. What does it mean to literally deny the humanity of millions of our fellow human beings for most of our national life and history?

It wasn't until 2003 that the science offered proof of the absurdity of the notion of hierarchical racial differences when it completed sequencing the human genome to reveal that we all are 99.9 percent the same. There is more difference within specific so-called races than between races. The superficial characteristics that make us appear different (such as the degree of skin pigmentation) were adaptations to the climates through which our ancestors evolved.

President Lincoln predicted the world wouldn't note nor remember what was said that day and admonished the audience to never forget the 50,000 soldiers who sacrificed their lives in battle to save a nation and usher in a new birth of freedom. But he was wrong. What he said will forever be etched in our history, and will always be remembered. The bigger question is whether we fully honor and hallow the sacrifice those soldiers made on those grounds.

In reality, war does not right wrongs or transform hearts and minds or change entrenched beliefs. Only healing, deepened understanding, and clear intention can bring about meaningful societal transformation.

The words of the Gettysburg address were truly inspirational. Lincoln reminded us of the arc of time, the four consecutive centuries of wrongs. He reminded us of the contradiction between our aspirations and our shameful behaviors; perhaps most powerful, he reminded listeners of the value of lives sacrificed. The words of this president presaged the truest challenge of subsequent centuries -- true freedom and equality has been elusive. Clearly, erecting a nation capable of actualizing the promise of liberty and justice and democracy requires far more than words.

It requires heroic actions.

Our progress must be put in perspective with the gains that have been made. To place context around the matter -- our nation was a slave nation and economy for far longer than it was a nation that aspired for freedom for all.

Neither the Civil War nor the Civil Rights movement that followed a century later directly addressed the underlying adherence to the fallacy of worth within our human family. As a result, changes prescribed by law, statutes and even war, have not yet fully transformed America.

This is our work now.

We are compelled by 21st century realities to move the nation forward. We can draw inspiration from Lincoln, and other great leaders who recognized the raging conflict at America's core -- a stated declaration of liberty and justice for all and yet a prevalence of racial bias. The nation must move beyond denial of this racist past. And we must understand that the brutality and inequalities created pain, suffering and loss, as well as unearned gains that carved deep scars into the very soul of America.

We can then begin to explore the implications of this reality today and for generations yet born. This exploration will help us address and redress the emotional economic and social tolls.

Doing this work and transforming our beliefs as a nation and about one another as equal human beings will create more than aspirations for equality, freedom and democracy. It will generate heart felt and shared desire for it, a deeply understood and felt need. From this place, true democracy and freedom will arise.