Two hundred and thirty-seven years ago the people of the United States issued their ringing Declaration of Independence from Great Britain.
Included in the declaration were words that have given hope to people ever since:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
But all people were not created equal in those new United States. Not while millions of men, women and children were slaves -- considered less than fully human because of the colour of their skins, property to be bought and sold like cattle.
It took another ninety years and a civil war that threatened to destroy his country, before the sixteenth president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, issued the Emancipation Proclamation declaring an end to the evil of slavery.
Later that same year, Lincoln delivered his famous Gettysburg address. He spoke immediately after a clash between southern and northern armies that killed and wounded more soldiers than any other battle in the American Civil War.
His speech ended with the immortal words:
"It is for us the living...to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced...that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
One hundred and fifty years later, after being sworn in as forty-fifth president of the United States, Barack Hussein Obama, the country's first African-American leader, issued what amounts to his own Declaration of Independence and Emancipation Proclamation.
"We affirm the promise of our democracy," he said, his voice ringing out in the clear, cold Washington morning to many millions of people around the world. "We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional -- what makes us American -- is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago."
"Today we continue a never-ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they've never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth.
"Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free. We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together."
Obama went on to talk of the urgent need for America to free all its people, not just victims of racism but also the poor and the sick.
"For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it."
"We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few.
"And we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice -- not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes: tolerance and opportunity, human dignity and justice."
As he went on, his voice took on the cadence and fervor of Martin Luther King's great "I Have a Dream" speech shortly before the civil rights leader was assassinated.
"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 [women's rights], and Selma [voting rights], and Stonewall [gay rights]; 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."
Then came Obama's call for an end to sexism and homophobia in American society.
"It is now our generation's task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law -- for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.
Toward the end, Obama spoke of the attempts in many Southern states to keep black people from voting. And of his efforts to find a way to welcome millions of illegal immigrants living in America. And of the urgent need to control the terrible plague of guns.
Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity - until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.
"Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia, to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm.
And he echoed Abraham Lincoln, one of his predecessors in the American presidency, when he made, in his final words, this call for a nation more worthy of its past.
"Let us, each of us, now embrace with solemn duty and awesome joy what is our lasting birthright. With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom."
How sad that 237 years after the founding of those not-so-United States, the forty-fifth president has to warn that America is still racist and sexist.
That there's a growing gap between rich and poor.
That the sick are still not cared for properly.
That not every American has equal voting rights.
That gay people still face prejudice.
That illegal immigrants live in a twilight world of uncertainty.
And that children's very lives are threatened by all those guns.
How very sad.
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