Pete Seeger, his voice thinned by the years, sings old labor and unity anthems shoulder-to-shoulder with The Boss.
Through the Vietnam War and the crushing of the labor unions, we sang with outrage, defiance and by the skin of our teeth. Through the last thirty years, we’ve sung to each other of Joe Hill, Matewan, endless war and the Letter from the Birmingham Jail. Even when we doubted, we pledged in small groups to join hands and overcome. (Letter from the Birmingham Jail: http://www.bu.edu/irsd/Ec326_2004/material_2004/Letter%20from%20Birmingham%20Jail.htm
In one moment during the Democratic Primary Debates, Obama and Clinton showed us the fundamental difference between them. The moment received little subsequent coverage and came in response to a question from Kim Millman of Burnsville, Minnesota: “…there’s been no acknowledgement by any of the presidential candidates of the negative economic impact of immigration on the African-American community. How do you propose to address the high unemployment rates and the declining wages in the African-American community that are related to the flood of immigrant labor?”
Obama replied with full understanding of how business and economic downturns have conspired to divide workers along racial, ethnic and gender lines into weakened factions. He encouraged workers to organize around their commonly-held kitchen table issues. He reminded us that all American workers are under siege and that we need each other. His response educated workers for their own organizing good.
Clinton’s response acknowledged that business scavenges for low-cost workers and drives down compensation, but many of her words were vested in the manufactured divide between African Americans and “immigrant” workers. (The transcript of the debate is available here: http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/01/31/dem.debate.transcript/index.html
This inauguration, we sing, “This land is our land,” with tears streaming. We dare to believe we can re-create a “government of the people, by the people and for the people.”
In music and poetry we hear a few of the stories we didn’t learn in school. Queen Latifah takes the stage — tall, certain and strong — to tell us of the day Marian Anderson and Eleanor Roosevelt faced down The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). I give thanks to my mother and grandfather for telling me the story of those two astonishing women. There are so many clues in our history that show us how to avoid the mistakes that have separated us one from another. (Here’s the story of Marian and Eleanor. It includes The First Lady’s letter of resignation from the DAR: http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/american_originals/eleanor.html
More than any other reason, I thank the fates for Obama this Inauguration weekend because I remember how migrant farm workers were threatened with lynching in the town where I grew up. I remember the faces of my schoolmates when we hid beneath our desks in fear of a US-USSR nuclear war. I am thankful, while a ceasefire exists between Israel and Gaza, that our next President has an ingrained understanding that we live or die together.
For years, the picture of Eleanor climbing out of the coal mine hung over my bed. (I was an atheist who adored my spiritual icons.) Her face was dirty and the miner’s lamp she wore hung low over her forehead and crushed her hairdo. She was looking up at the miners who were waiting to pull her out of the hole and into the light. I haven’t located that particular photo but this link shows her entering the depths of the Willow Grove Mine in a mining car: http://www.geocities.com/Heartland/Ridge/4478/grove.htm
Today, the media speaks in breathless tones about the gown Michelle will wear tomorrow. CNN is all a-twitter speculating on the designer’s identity and how many pairs of shoes The First Lady will need to survive the Inaugural festivities.
We need bread and circuses, I suppose; but we also need to see honest images of cashiers, neighbors, truck drivers, friends and autoworkers as they wait in line this winter day at their local food pantries.