Barack Obama, speaking in a stadium filled with South African people and representatives of the world’s nations, said Nelson Mandela emerged “as the last great liberator of the 20th century. Like Gandhi, he would lead a resistance movement — a movement that at its start had little prospect for success. Like Dr. King, he would give potent voice to the claims of the oppressed and the moral necessity of racial justice.” It was a powerful way to organize our awareness of the history of the twentieth century. In his second inaugural address, he did the same thing for the history of the United States when he referred to the places of the civil rights movements in the United States: “Seneca and Selma and Stonewall.” By adding Stonewall to the other, established civil rights movements, he elevated us and implicitly made a promise to us.
He’s done this several times, a practice I am not accustomed to yet. (I am just not familiar enough with being given that level of respect from an unimpeachable source at the very pinnacle of respect in our culture and delivered on the world stage to know how it makes me feel. I think I worry about it a little.)
Now the president has done it again. Toward the end of his eulogy for Mr. Mandela, he said this:
The struggles that follow the victory of formal equality or universal franchise may not be as filled with drama and moral clarity as those that came before, but they are no less important. For around the world today, we still see children suffering from hunger and disease. We still see run-down schools. We still see young people without prospects for the future. Around the world today, men and women are still imprisoned for their political beliefs, and are still persecuted for what they look like, and how they worship, and who they love. That is happening today.
Apparently he is going to do this regularly, give us respect and demonstrate that he understands our situation in America, and it is not going to take a major gay crisis to get him to do so. This is happening today, he says. I don’t know about you, but this has been so long in coming that it’s going to take a little time for me to adapt to this new world.