It was to be expected that, given a second opportunity to give a speech on inauguration day, this president would go big. This is especially so since that second opportunity happened to fall on the day that we celebrated the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., another man of epochal significance.
Not content to spout platitudes of future unity which are long on eloquence and short on substance (or probability, given this Congress,) Barack Obama decided to reach back into the past and heap praise upon historical figures who, in his opinion, were agents for justice.
This is part of what he had to say:
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.
Now, I’m as much a sucker for the grand and poetic gesture as anyone, being both Italian and Irish. I think that it is important to be reminded of the struggle of our ancestors and hold them up as shining examples of all that we once were and could yet again become.
I nodded my head in agreement as I thought about the women of Seneca Falls, who raised their voices in a plea for equality and the single most important element of that condition: the right to vote.
I said a quiet prayer as I remembered those who were bloodied and battered on the road to Selma, and included a quick message for my own father who spent a summer in the hell of Mississippi registering blacks for the vote.
But I had to stop at Stonewall and say, ‘what?’
I recognize that the struggle for LGBT rights has been hard-fought, even though I disagree with some of its aims including so-called marriage equality. What struck me as discordant was the fact that while the women of Seneca Falls were peaceful and the protestors in Selma were viciously attacked by white bigots, the real victims of Stonewall were not the angry patrons of a gay bar but, rather, police officers who were attacked by broken bottles, fists and whatever else the mobs could lay their hands on.
It’s all well and good to talk about human struggle and the fact that people have been discriminated against since time immemorial. There’s definitely a place for that in an inauguration speech that takes place on Martin Luther King Day. But there’s something distasteful in placing a mob uprising at a gay bar on the same level as Seneca and Selma.