We Have Overcome
In 1940, believing that "God Bless America" was too passive an anthem, the great folk singer Woody Guthrie wrote an answer called "This Land is Your Land."
Pete Seeger, God bless him, sang it at the Inaugural Concert at the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday. We all know the chorus:
"This land is your land, this land is my land.
From California, to the New York Island,
From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters,
This land was made for you and me."
What most people don't know is the little lyric that Woody - always on the side of the people, always on the side of the unions, always willing to wink and break a law or two for the right cause - embedded at the end:
As I was walkin', I saw a sign there,
And that sign said - no tresspassin',
But on the other side, it didn't say nothin!
Now that side was made for you and me!"
It was in this context that I watched the Inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama as our 44th president on Tuesday.
For the past eight years, we've been forced to watch our president and vice president break their oaths of office on a daily basis. On two separate occasions, they swore, as Obama and Vice President Joe Biden did on Tuesday, "to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic."
Yet again and again, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney subverted the Constitution to their own ends: either ignoring it or rewriting it to create an imperial presidency that regarded the courts, the Congress, the laws of the land and the people of the world with contempt.
On Tuesday, it was thrilling to see the millions of people, most of them young, fill the Washington Mall. Many of them worked to get Obama elected. Many of them will now enter politics themselves. All of them were there to learn the answer to a question that Guthrie asked in his song: "In the squares of the city, in the shadow of the steeple, Near the relief office I see my people. And some are grumblin' and some are wonderin' If this land's still made for you and me."
Obama's speech tried to answer that question. First, he took Bush and Cheney to task for their dismal and costly - in terms of lives and capital - failure of character.
"That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood," Obama said, while Bush made a sour face. "Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age... Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land."
To all tyrants, including Bush and Cheney, Obama warned, "Know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy."
Then Obama took aim at Karl Rove.
"On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord," he said. "On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics."
Torture, unjust imprisonment, the bombing of innocents, the worship of nuclear weapons - America must turn its back on these things, Obama said.
"We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals," he said. "Our founding fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more."
It was the Rev. Joseph P. Lowery, the veteran of many Civil Rights battles, who said it most succinctly and with the most cool: "Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back; when brown can stick around; when yellow will be mellow; when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right. That all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen."
It took a remarkable number of tissues for me to get through the ceremony - Aretha Franklin's amazing hat and more amazing performance; the music by Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, Gabriela Montero and Anthony McGill, with its echoes of Shaker simplicity, klezmer passion and African-American jazz and swing; Jill Biden's tears as her husband took the oath of office; the National Anthem; the 21-gun salute.
I cried most at the end, though, when the cameras focused on a handmade sign on the Mall that said, simply, "We have overcome."
This land may once again be our land. I hope that somewhere, Guthrie and Dr. Martin Luther King are drinking a heavenly champagne toast to that simple truth. Say Amen.