WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama placed the struggle over race and U.S. civil rights at the center of his second inauguration on Monday, a departure from his first inaugural address and from a first term punctuated by relative silence on the subject.
With the ceremony falling on the holiday that celebrates the birth of the slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., Obama used the opportunity to link King’s call for racial equality with the movement for equal rights for gays and women.
Nearly 50 years after King delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech at the opposite end of the Washington Mall, Obama stood at the Capitol and summoned the memory of those who marched that day.
He said: “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.”
The attention Obama devoted to that history served as a rare personal recognition of the role African-Americans played in his re-election. They rallied around him in their millions in the face of lagging employment among blacks and criticism that Obama has not done enough to alleviate poverty among African-Americans or reform the criminal justice system.
“I think those of us who practice politics would probably judge his record a little differently than those who practice civil rights,” said South Carolina Representative James Clyburn, a veteran of the civil rights movement. “For us to expect him to conduct himself as a Martin Luther King Jr. would be very, very unrealistic.”
The focus on civil rights followed criticism of Obama for choosing mostly white males for his top Cabinet positions, which Representative Charles Rangel, the second-longest serving African-American congressman, this month called “embarrassing as hell.”
It was not only King’s official birthday, but the start of the 50th year since he led the March on Washington in 1963 that included his “I Have a Dream Speech.”
That same year Medgar Evers, a civil rights leader, was gunned down in Jackson, Mississippi. His wife Myrlie Evers-Williams joined Obama for the inaugural invocation.
One hundred years earlier, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln freed southern slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation.
With the confluence of anniversaries and using for his swearing-in one bible that belonged to King and another used by Abraham Lincoln, Obama underscored the importance of the African-American struggle in the larger sweep of history.
That too was a departure.
University of Pennsylvania political scientist Daniel Gillion has studied all remarks by modern presidents and concluded that in his first two years in office Obama said less about race than any Democratic president since 1961.
Still, all the history invoked by Obama in his speech, moved Representative John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and prominent activist who lived through the beatings and tumult of the civil rights era.
“I did everything possible today to keep from crying,” Lewis told CNN after the ceremony.
In 1965, Lewis led marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama in a protest that ended in a violent confrontation with police and became known as “Bloody Sunday.”
Obama tied that protest to others in American history in the long struggle for the rights of women and gays.
“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,” Obama said.
Seneca Falls, New York was home to a significant women’s rights conference 1848. The gay rights movement in the United States has its roots in a protest against a police raid on the Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1969.
In case the substance of the ceremony was lost on anyone, the inaugural parade included floats celebrating the civil rights movement and King, a departure from the usual flotilla dedicated to states with ties to the president and vice president.
Reporting By Samuel P. Jacobs; editing by Fred Barbash and Christopher Wilson