Thursday, January 24, 2013

Seneca Falls, Selma, Stonewall

Like most of you, I’m sure, I watched the inauguration on Monday with the greatest interest. Particularly, I was impressed by the way the president managed wordlessly to suggest the exceptional symbolism of America’s first black president taking his oath of office on Martin Luther King Day in the month that marks the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation by using in the ceremony both the Bible upon which Lincoln’s own hand rested as he took his oath of office in 1861 and a Bible that once belonged to the Reverend King. Some things you can only say clearly in images, I think, and it’s hard to think how the president could have found a clearer way to express himself regarding the importance of Monday’s ceremony than subtly, yet also fully publicly, to link himself to the legacies both of President Lincoln and of Martin Luther King, thus to indicate that he sees himself as their successor in the struggle for civil rights and justice in our country.
The rest of the Inauguration I liked too. I thought the First Lady’s dress at the Inaugural Ball was fabulous. (Other than the designers of the dresses she didn’t wear, who could not have?) I liked Richard Blanco’s poem, “One Today,” which I thought captured the spirit of the moment well and expressed just the right sense of reality-tinged optimism to suit the occasion. (I was actually surprised to learn that when Robert Frost read his poem, “The Gift Outright,” at President Kennedy’s  swearing-in ceremony in 1961, he was the first poet to be invited to read a poem at a presidential inauguration. I remember that day clearly, and I particularly remember how impressed I was both by the man and his poem. Only later did I hear the fuller story—that he had actually written a different poem for the occasion, one a bit blandly entitled “Dedication,” but found himself blinded by the bright sunlight reflecting off the snow that covered Washington that day and so on the spot decided instead to declaim by heart a poem he had first recited publicly twenty years earlier, but which he thought, as did I at age seven, captured the spirit of the day nicely.)
But I was especially interested in the president’s remarks. Inaugural addresses are interesting pieces of writing. They have to be relatively brief because they have generally been delivered outdoors in the middle of the winter. (Even the original date, March 4—the date on which the Constitution took effect in 1789—can be pretty chilly. The “new date,” January 20, which has been in effect since Franklin Roosevelt’s second term, however, is usually even colder. And the ceremony has only been moved indoors due to inclement weather twice, once for President Taft and once for President Reagan.)  They are not exactly State of the Union addresses, but neither are inaugural addresses expected to sound like campaign speeches. Few have reached the level of humility attained by Franklin Pierce, who opened his remarks in 1853 by observing that he felt only relief  “to feel that no heart but my own can know the personal regret and bitter sorrow over which I have been borne to a position so suitable for others rather than desirable for myself.” And few, surely, have reached (or ever will reach) the generosity of spirit attained in his Second Inaugural Address by Abraham Lincoln, who in fewer than 700 words attained a level of oratorical greatness to which all presidents surely aspire but which only the very fewest will ever attain. But even when considered against the other fifty-six attempts (of which only sixteen were second inaugural addresses, or eighteen if you define “second” as meaning “not first,” and thus include FDR’s third and fourth addresses in the count), I think President Obama spoke well. He certainly attained a level of oratory that exceeds the standard level of political discourse in this country. That is, admittedly, setting the bar a bit low. But on the whole I still think it was a fine address, one that I personally found stirring and inspiring.
I was especially interested in the paragraph about two-thirds of the way through the two-thousand-word speech in which the president said this:  “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; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.”
There’s a lot embedded in those words. The observation that we are all created equal harks back, of course, to the words with which Thomas Jefferson tried to encapsulate the essence of the American democratic ideal in the Declaration of Independence. The irony that hovers over those words like an eminence grise is, of course, that Jefferson himself owned slaves, men and women whom he presumably did not consider to be his equals at all (including not when he fathered children on them). The words have a different ring to them, therefore, as they appear in the opening line of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, especially given Lincoln’s observation in the Second Inaugural Address that the root cause that led to the secession of the southern states was “to strengthen, perpetuate, and extend” slavery in our country…”even by war.” And, of course, those words are also forever linked to Martin Luther King, who declaimed in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech that he had a dream that our country would one day rise up and “live out the true meaning” of Jefferson’s deathless assertion that all men are created equal. The president delicately chose a less gender-specific version of the idea, but the way—if I’m not reading too much into this—the way he found to link himself specifically to Lincoln and King—and not to Jefferson—by choosing their Bibles for the ceremony suggested to me the way that the president understands the notion of equality to be absolute, not subject to the mores of a society that proclaims freedom to most but which reserves the right to exclude at least some Americans from the general principle.
The three examples the president gave are also interesting. Selma, we obviously all know about—it was in the spring of 1965 that the three Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights marches permanently changed the face of the civil rights movement by creating the public outcry that led directly to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which act of Congress changed the landscape of Southern politics permanently. (In Selma itself, for example, the majority if citizens in 1965 were black, but only 1% were on the voter rolls because of policies that made it almost impossible for black people to register to vote. The Voting Rights Act required federal oversight of voter registration and is generally considered to have done more to enfranchise black voters in our country than any other piece of legislation in our nation’s history.)  And we all know about Stonewall as well, or we should: it is the name of the gay bar in the West Village that was the site of the riot in 1969 that has come to symbolize the refusal of gay people to be marginalized, discriminated against, or treated prejudicially by the police or the courts.  So those two references were clear enough. 
But, I asked myself embarrassedly, whatever happened at Seneca Falls?

Does everybody but me know? By now, of course, everybody does know, or anyone with access to the Internet does! I looked it up as well, and was surprised by what I found. Seneca Falls, it turns out, is a town in the Finger Lakes region near Geneva, New York, and was the site in the summer of 1848 of the first women’s rights convention to be organized by women in the United States. The meeting, organized by a number of local woman including Elizabeth Cady Stanton around a visit by Lucretia Mott, both of them well-known supporters of women’s suffrage, was most famous for producing the “Declaration of  Sentiments” that eventually became one of the foundational documents in the struggle for women’s rights in our country.  It was the beginning of a long struggle; when the nineteenth amendment to the Constitution was finally ratified in 1920, exactly one of the one hundred signatories to the Declaration was still alive and she, a woman named Charlotte Woodward, was too ill actually to vote. But it was, at least, a beginning, just as the Stonewall riot itself didn’t accomplish anything too tangible but is somehow nevertheless credited with putting the concept of gay rights on the table for consideration by people who earlier on might not even have acknowledged its existence.  Even the Selma march is far more important in terms of what it led to in terms of forcing a sea-change in public opinion than in terms of what it itself accomplished. So perhaps the president was right to consider the three, Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall, as each other’s equivalent respectively in the struggle for gender equity, racial equality, and gay rights.

How Jewish Americans figure into that equation is hard to say. In our struggle for full equality in this country, we have surely faced prejudice as diabolical as that any other group has had to overcome, yet it’s not that easy to say what event would be the Jewish equivalent to the three seminal moments in the struggle for equality the president mentioned. Have we never then had one? Or has the Jewish struggle for acceptance taken a different course, one that hasn’t led to legislation formally designed to end anti-Jewish prejudice or to riots intended by the rioters to call the attention of the public to the unfair way in which they were being treated by public officials whose job it was to make them safe and to guarantee their wellbeing? It does feel that way to me, but it’s hard to say exactly why things have played themselves out the way they have. Yet we too have made progress towards equality that our own great-grandparents would probably have found unimaginable, just as have black people, women, and gay citizens. Perhaps we have simply faced a different kind of enemy in those prejudiced against us, one in whose hands the usual weaponry of prejudice—marginalization, segregation, and denigration—have not worked as well as they have when aimed at other groups. Is it because, in the end, we have always looked with contempt on haters who direct their prejudice against us and have found in that contempt the ultimate weapon against the slings and arrows of bigotry? Even that doesn’t sound entirely right to me…and yet in these days since the president’s speech I have found myself wondering endlessly about the issue and still, as I write these words, uncertain why the Jewish experience in America has been so similar and so dissimilar to the experiences of other discriminated-against groups in this place.  It seemed odd to me that in the president’s mind, the struggle against anti-Semitism did not take its place alongside the other struggles for equality and fairness that he mentioned. But even I cannot say what I would have had him add to the troika of alliterative turning-points he did mention when he alluded to Stonewall, Selma, and Seneca Falls in his address.

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