The Inauguration Day for Obama’s second term fell on the same day previously set to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday. This was not entirely a coincidence. To comply with constitutional requirements the oath of office was actually taken on Sunday, January 20, the day BEFORE the public swearing and speech making. In other words the President deliberately avoided celebrating the renewal of his presidency on the Sunday which actually began his new term. He chose instead to put all dramatic attention for the event on the day the country observed the birthday of Doctor King. Why? The choice has not been explained by any public statement I have seen or heard. Rather the best explanations may come from looking thoughtfully at the president as a person and as a leader. A good explanation may also provide insight about what the President intends for his future and for ours.
The reader may be media conscious enough to suspect that the big event was planned with Sunday’s competing football games in mind. Surely Obama the politician planned his inauguration with the viewership of the masses, especially the President’s supporters, as the central concern. But I remind such a reader that the games came much later than the midday inauguration, and that many of Obama’s most faithful followers were surely drawn from live coverage of the inauguration by their participation in MLK Jr parades on Monday. Television viewership might have been much greater if the President had kept the public inauguration on the day of the private one, Sunday the 6th. In short I believe the President did not make his plans based on the size of the audience but on the content of the message he would deliver.
Picture in your mind the clearest image you have of Martin Luther King Jr, the man whose birthday was honored in the choice of inauguration day. Got it? I am betting your image is that of the prophet with his back to the Lincoln Memorial and his face looking up the Mall towards the Capitol Hill at the Mall’s opposite end. Your image is of him speaking on the August day when his Dream speech became the dramatic centerpiece for the Civil Rights Movement. That speech also became the most famous American expression of the philosophy of nonviolence, and it remains the most beloved articulation of the liberal ideal John Lewis has referred to as “the beloved community”. Doctor King’s life was to be cut short by an assassin’s bullet only a few years later. Since then his dream has remained the holy grail of several generations. All the struggle and failure of our pedestrian living has not extinguished the challenge of Doctor King’s dream. On January 7th an African American President with a full term of largely unfulfilled efforts gave himself an opportunity that millions had made possible with their votes, their campaigning and their tolerance for the difficulty of their task. This time the speaker spoke symbolically from the other end of the Mall. Doctor King had spoken TO power. As the President of the nation and standing on the Capitol Barach Obama spoke WITH the power of the American people. The plain symbolism of the moment said with the action of words that the dream was no longer an offering of a few to a hostile nation. It had become the dream of the nation Doctor King had loved and challenged a half century before.