Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

America's new dawn of equality

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How fitting that Richard Blanco chose the sun.

A 44-year-old poet raised in Miami, the first Cuban-American and the first openly gay person ever to deliver a presidential inauguration poem, he used the earth star to frame his composition, "One Today," at Monday's ceremony before the U.S. Capitol. Blanco found poetic significance in tracing the many disparate American lives, the truck drivers and schoolchildren, the waitpersons and accountants, upon whom it sheds light during its daily trek across the sky.

But there's another reason Blanco's choice made sense. The dawn is the symbolic beginning of the new day and thus, the symbolic end of the old.

Keep that in mind as people parse Barack Obama's second inaugural address. Keep it in mind as they debate What It All Means that he has adopted a more combative stance toward Republicans in Congress, that he sang the praises of liberal values, that he apparently became the first president in history to take a stand for -- or even mention -- gay rights during an inaugural address. Keep it in mind as Republicans piously declaim Obama's failure to seek common ground with them, conveniently forgetting that every time over the last four years the president reached a hand out to them, he drew back a nub.

Keep it in mind, because Blanco was, perhaps, righter than he knew when he invoked an inclusive new American dawn, with its implied farewell to an exclusionary American yesterday.

Indeed, a collective shiver climbed through some of us when the president invoked places made sacred by the freedom crusades they saw.

"We, the people," he said, "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."

There was more to that passage than sibilant alliteration. There was also a reminder that there was nothing predestined about this American dawn, that we come to it by way of struggle and blood, courage and vision. Yesterday, 1848, at Seneca Falls in New York, 300 people convened to advance the radical idea that women are fully equal human beings. Yesterday, 1965, at Selma, in Alabama, African-Americans had their bones broken and bodies bloodied to put forward the radical idea that they were American citizens who deserved the right to vote. Yesterday, 1969, at The Stonewall Inn, a bar in Greenwich Village, gay people rioted and protested to drive home the radical idea that they had the right to be left the hell alone.

These are some of the yesterdays that have made up this today. And as much as Obama's speech was a political document, it was also a needed statement of principle at a time when some of us seem determined to repeal progress, a time when battles about women's rights, voting rights and gay rights have again become -- or in the case of gay people, remain -- as fresh as tomorrow's headlines. Indeed, much of the Republican Party's appeal -- this was starkly clear in last year's campaign -- boils down to an implicit pledge to restore yesterday.

To which the best response may be a hymn the civil rights marchers once sang: "Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around." Wish though they will and try though they might, the GOP will not roll back change. One hopes they will finally get that clear.

The president's inaugural address drove nails into the coffin of a dead era when progress and power, rights and right were reserved for those who were male, those who were white, those who were straight. It remains to be seen what actions he will put to his words, what new forms of obstruction his political opponents will take.

But the message itself was clear. We stand together in the promise of a new dawn.

And yesterday is gone.

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald

-- The Miami Herald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 23, 2013 A11

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