They say speeches don't create change. THEY are wrong. Barack Obama's inaugural address lifted up a nation that has been downcast, instead of looking up at the one sky above us. Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. knew that words matter. They changed the course of a nation.
They inspired us to act, to end slavery, to fulfill their dreams. Just when we thought that we were incapable of action, and skeptical of dreams, Obama aroused from our stupor.
"We are made for this moment, and we will seize it," he told the millions who focused on every word with almost the same passion as he expressed it.
If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive to celebrate his birthday, he could not have dreamed of a reelected African-American president calling us to complete the journey that King had begun. Since this nation was founded, "We the people" no longer means what it once did -- a select cadre of white male landholders.
Obama almost sang his words when he redefined who we, the American people are.
"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."
Those were the turning points for women's suffrage, civil rights and gay and lesbian rights. At the time, each milestone was fiercely contested with cruel rhetoric and physical violence, but extending citizenship to women, African-Americans, and gay and lesbian Americans is making us a better nation.
Again and again Obama reminded us that "our journey is not complete, until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts," ... "until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law," ... "until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote... until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity."
Not for one moment did he shy away from controversy. "We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that failure to do so would betray our children and future generations."
Many commentators pronounced that it was fundamentally a liberal speech, recalling the days of Franklin Roosevelt. I saw it differently. I did not see it as either liberal or conservative. To me it was a speech that reflected the best of American values, originally written down by the founding fathers, and reframed for our time to be inclusive, to embrace every American.
Had the old definition of "we the people" prevailed, would we have a Supreme Court Justice named Sonia Sotomayor, would we have an inaugural poet, named Richard Blanco, who is openly gay?
I suspect not.
Most certainly, we would not have just reelected an African-American president.
We are a stronger, more egalitarian nation because of Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall, but as Obama reminded us, the journey is not complete. It is we the people, who must exercise our rights as citizens of this great democracy, to continue to move forward. Thank you, Mr. President for showing us the way.