A field of dreams, flags, and lights

Bruce Maples (bruceinlouisville@gmail.com)
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This year, the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King came at just the right time to help us reflect on the legacy of the civil rights leader. As we consider his legacy, I would propose that his most important speech was not the 1963 “I have a Dream” speech, but the 1967 speech “Beyond Vietnam.”

In that speech, which he delivered exactly one year before he was assassinated, Dr. King foresaw how the Vietnam war implied something larger about the nation. It was, he said, “but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality … we will find ourselves organizing ‘clergy and laymen concerned’ committees for the next generation … unless there is a significant and profound change in American life.”

Dr. King was moved by the injustice and inequality common throughout the US. The question he asked about injustice in his 1967 speech was “Where do we go from here?” He said there were two options: community or chaos.  

If we are to choose community over chaos, Dr. King observed, “Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.”

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”  

Like Dr. King’s speeches, President Joe Biden’s oath of office and inaugural address showcased his vision to unite a divided nation. The oath he swore:

“I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of the President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

The very platform Joe Biden stood on was swarmed by a mob of “Trump-incited insurrectionists” seeking to overturn the results of the election, a clear violation of that oath, with some using American flags as weapons in a place where presidents have held a peaceful transfer of power as a core American value.

And in a fundamental break with 150 years of tradition, President Biden was not able to turn to his predecessor to thank him for making the transfer of power possible.

Ongoing security threats and the pandemic left the National Mall empty of people. But  like a Field of Dreams, the Mall was decorated beautifully and solemnly with 200,000 American flags – ceremonial flags representing all 50 states and territories, and 400 lights around the reflecting pool adjacent to the Lincoln Memorial commemorating the 400,000 deaths from COVID-19.

The simplicity and majesty were awe-inspiring and emotional for many viewers, regardless of political point of view.

In 1933, former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt bluntly took on the devastation of the Great Depression in his inaugural address.

“A host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil with little return. Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment,” Roosevelt said in a speech remembered for his line that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Today, Biden addressed a nation where most Republicans say they don’t trust the results of the election.

In 2001, former President George W. Bush also faced the challenge of giving his inaugural address when many Americans were still outraged after a contested election was decided by the Supreme Court 5-4.

“Sometimes our differences run so deep, it seems we share a continent but not a country. We do not accept this,” Bush said in a speech that thanked Al Gore for a contest “conducted with spirit and ended with grace.”

Decades of experience show us that inspirational words might work in unifying Americans: From George H.W. Bush who sought a “kinder, gentler nation” to Bill Clinton who pledged to be a “repairer of the breach” to George W. Bush “I want to change the tone of Washington” to Barack Obama “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America—there is the United States of America”  to Joe Biden speaking of “America United.” These important speeches were devoted to ending needless conflict.

In his inaugural speech, President Biden responded to the deep divisions in American society exposed by the racial justice protests and the riot at the Capitol with all its racist symbols.

Presidential historian Russell Riley said 1968-69 was a comparable time, when Richard Nixon took office after the country was riven by riots, antiwar protests, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.

In his 1969 speech, Nixon called on Americans to summon their better angels.

“We are caught in war, wanting peace. We are torn by division, wanting unity,” Nixon said. “We see around us empty lives, wanting fulfillment. We see tasks that need doing, waiting for hands to do them. To a crisis of the spirit, we need an answer of the spirit. To find that answer, we need only look within ourselves.”

Said historian Michael Beschloss, “The founders put a lot of responsibility on an incoming president to unite the country.”

In Biden’s inaugural speech he proclaimed: “Democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. Democracy has prevailed.”

”I know the resilience of our Constitution and the strength of our nation. The American story depends not on any one of us, not on some of us, but on all of us.”

But perhaps the most resounding words were from our youngest inaugural poet, Amanda Gorman, “We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it, would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy. And this effort very nearly succeeded. But while democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated.”

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