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The Power of Words

By January 20, 2009January 18th, 2017Civic Life, The Long Road

This day stands as a rebuke to all who doubt the power of words.  And on this defining day, I was struck again by the power of words spoken to inspire, transform, evoke, and celebrate.  Here are some I found most poignant:

Those who doubt the supremacy of the ballot over the bullet can never
diminish the power engendered by nonviolent struggles for justice and
equality like the one that made this day possible.

–From Diane Feinstein’s Welcoming Remarks

Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the
dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the
bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the
glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.

–From Elizabeth Alexander’s Inaugural Poem, Praise Song for the Day

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time
has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm
our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward
that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to
generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and
all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

–From President Barack Obama’s 1st Inaugural

This particular passage evoked for me the words of James Baldwin who said that to achieve nationhood requires “the growing up of this dangerously adolescent country.” I hear in it the very real possibility of the mature politics of which I wrote here almost a year ago.

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.  Our founding fathers faced with perils that 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.

To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict or blame
their society’s ills on the West, know that your people will judge you
on what you can build, not what you destroy.

What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a
recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to
ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly
accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is
nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than
giving our all to a difficult task.

–From President Barack Obama’s 1st Inaugural

Let me end this evocation of the words spoken today by gesturing to the way Obama’s suggestion that the ideals of America “still light the world” resonate with these words about love from Alexander’s poem:

What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial,
national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need
to preempt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp — praise song for walking forward in that light.

And these, from the Reverend Joseph Lowery’s beautiful benediction:

And now, Lord, in the complex arena of human relations, help us to make
choices on the side of love, not hate; on the side of inclusion, not
exclusion; tolerance, not intolerance.

And as we leave this
mountaintop, help us to hold on to the spirit of fellowship and the
oneness of our family. Let us take that power back to our homes, our
workplaces, our churches, our temples, our mosques or wherever we seek
your will.

One Comment

  • Janet Filing says:

    I concur with your thanks to all those leaders including Martin Luther King Jr., who I heard in 1968 Detroit in Grad School for their hopes and dreams which pointed to this day. I also heard in your tribute to former educators a thanks to those who raised you to be the person who you are as a force for justice and change.
    I remember the comment you made about my work being “noble” when you visited me where I worked with cocaine addicted mothers and their babies in Urban Philadelphia. That word meant a lot to me and your noticing the justice of the intent of this work was invigorating to one who marched, often with you as a little person, and who also worked to create a bond of justice and fairness in the health/human services realm. I felt the power of your words and I was and am touched by the election and speech of our President Barack Hussein Obama. Yes. We. Did. And we will need to keep on keeping on to create a more perfect union. Jan

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