“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal—is the start that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.”
– President Barack Obama, “Second Inaugural Address” (2013)
Some political observers have pointed out how President Obama’s second inaugural address contained plenty of memorable lines. The President’s affirmation of women’s rights, civil rights, and gay rights, via his Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall allusions, does not just stand out as an impressive use of lyrical alliteration; it represents the acknowledgement of Obama’s electoral coalition. Also, Obama’s nod serves as a ringing validation of the same manifestations of “identity politics” that some critics have chided while lamenting the fate of the U.S. Left after the 1960s. Obama’s adoption of the rhetoric in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution highlights feminists’, civil rights advocates’, and gay rights activists’ efforts to expand democracy by forcing the nation to live by its own creed articulated in the founding documents.
Seneca Falls, 1848
In the revolutionary year of 1848, abolitionist Elizabeth Cady Stanton and a few hundred women’srights advocates gathered in Seneca Falls, New York, to chart the course of the burgeoning women’smovement in the U.S. During the proceedings, they composed the “Declaration of Sentiments,” where they drew from the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…,” Stanton wrote.
While the Declaration of Independence announced the separation of colonists from the English crown, Stanton and other women activists proclaimed to the male polity that they were entitled to participate within American society as legally recognized citizens, not just as de facto actors within some segments of the nation’s public sphere. Suffrage emerged as a leading issue after fierce debate among the attendees. Obama may have drawn as much spirit from the Declaration of Sentiments as the Declaration of Independence, considering his support for the expansion of women’s rights.
Then, in March 1965, James Bevel, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights activists organized marches from Selma to Montgomery to ensure full voting rights. Americans watched and read about the brutality that the Selma police inflicted upon the marchers during the first march, which led activists and observers to refer to it as “Bloody Sunday.” Like Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the violence at Selma pricked the conscience of Americans and of President Lyndon Johnson. The Selma campaign provoked President Johnson to present a voting rights bill to Congress, a piece of legislature that became the Voting Rights Act. President Johnson’s adoption of the movement’s song and slogan, “We Shall Overcome,” in his speech to Congress represented a pivotal moment where the President rhetorically embraced the civil rights movement.
June 28, 1969 represented the third turning point in Obama’s triumvirate of social movements. In the early hours of the morning, gay Americans violently resisted police officers seeking to raid the bar in Greenwich Village’s Stonewall Inn. The Stonewall confrontation was not the first between gays and police in Greenwich Village, nor did the event signify the spontaneous emergence of a social movement. The Stonewall rebellion occurred within a context of gay and lesbian resistance to draconian policing of their social lives and bodies. Yet, like Seneca Falls and Selma, Stonewall represented a pivotal moment galvanizing gays and lesbians nationally. It spurred the creation of the Gay Liberation Front and laid the foundation for contemporary understandings of gay rights.
Conclusion: The Enduring Legacy and Power of Leftist Social Movements
Obama’s remarks represent a significant moment for people of color, women, and gays and lesbians. They are a reflection of these left-oriented movements’ enduring legacy and power. They also reveal the complicated relationship between the Liberal presidency and social movements where feminists, labor unions, civil rights and gay rights activists often had to push Democratic presidents like Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Barack Obama to address insufferable inequities and indignities. This is one of a few reasons why we should beware of progress narratives while admiring Obama’s acknowledgements.
The other reason is that none of the histories of these social movements progressed in a straight line. Women did not win the right to vote nationally until the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1919, seventy-one years after the Seneca Fall Convention. LGBTQ activists and their allies can enjoy the legalization of gay marriage in several states. However, gays and lesbians are still struggling for marriage equality and the benefits afforded to every married couple on a national level forty years after Stonewall. Women are still trying to preserve their reproductive freedoms. Blacks in Watts rebelled against racist conditions in their neighborhood days after President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. And while black men and women started to enter into the American political system in larger numbers decades after the Voting Rights Act, many blacks also began entering into the prison-industrial complex by the hundreds of thousands.
Moreover, Obama failed to mention the movements of Latinos, Native Americans, immigrants, and convicts in that sequence still have to confront various legal, political, economic, and cultural indignities and injustices. They also have their Seneca Falls Conventions, Selmas, and Stonewalls, but we rarely hear about those events. Maybe Attica (in 1971) and Wounded Knee (in 1973) does not resonate lyrically or contain the alliteration we seek. But, of course, members of these groups are working hard to expand democracy and it is important that they remain on our radar. Like Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects one indirectly.”
Obama’s connection between the nation’s founding documents and the various left-oriented social movements is a significant rhetorical and analytical moment in the history of inaugural addresses, but the connection, itself, is not exceptional. Activists like Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Martin Luther King, Jr. have often considered the founding documents and ideals a muse for their freedom dreams. Ironically, we may recall moments where opponents of feminism, civil rights, and gay rights accused supporters of these causes of some sort of anti-Americanism. It is true—leftists, feminists, civil rights and black power activists, and gay rights advocates have levied ruthless critiques of American culture, but less out of an intrinsic hate. I would like to hear how a nation founded upon contradictory ideas of slavery and freedom, inequality and liberty, and democracy and oligarchy could have survived without the presence of such movements challenging the racial, class, gender, and sexual status quo. Democracy, equality, or the nation, for that matter, could not exist under the weight of those glaring contradictions. Feminists, civil rights advocates, gay rights activists, and labor unions understood this. They often demonstrated that the Right in this country did, and do, not own a monopoly over the ideals of liberty and equality.
Those who attended the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, marched alongside Dr. King in Selma in 1965, and resisted arrest at the Stonewall bar in 1969 also struggled to establish justice, promote the general welfare, and to secure individual liberty for ourselves and our posterity. We shall continue to do the same. We have a duty to create more Seneca Falls Conventions, Selmas, and Stonewalls.