A nation that is defined by its ability to adapt and change

This is a remarkable day in many ways — a day that testifies to the historic strength of the American nation.

By an accident of the calendar, this is a day on which we solemnly mark the birthday of an American martyr. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a man who gave his life in the battle against racism, was born Jan. 15, 1929, and his birthday is commemorated on the third Monday in January.

Barack Obama was born Aug. 4, 1961, only six years after King emerged as a leader in the Civil Rights movement, and just seven years before King’s assassination at the age of 39. Obama was only 25 when King’s birthday was first marked as a national holiday by President Ronald Reagan in 1986. And yet, by the time Obama was 47, he was elected and sworn in as president of the United States. And today the nation will mark his second inauguration.

As nations go, the United States is still young, and perhaps that explains why it is often capable of moving fast — at least in comparative terms. It was founded as a nation that countenanced slavery, and yet within 78 years of the ratification of the Constitution, a civil war had been fought and the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery had been ratified.

Not always fast enough

That was, of course, a lifetime for millions of men and women bound in slavery. Change that moves quickly through a historical hour glass moves slowly for the oppressed who yearn for freedom.

Nearly a century passed between the abolition of slavery and the modern civil-rights movement that once again changed the face of America, thanks to Martin Luther King Jr. and men and women like him. King famously spoke of his dream for an America in which people would be judged on the content of their character rather than the color or their skin. That only 44 years passed between passage of the Civil Rights Act and the election of the nation’s first African-American president may have surprised even King.

A memorial to King stands about 20 blocks west of the Capitol, where Obama will take the oath of office. That is not a long distance, and yet it represents a very long journey for a nation that continues to seek to build a perfect union.

Elections define candidates, but inaugural addresses define the aspirations of a president. Obama will be speaking to a nation that remains divided in politics and ideology. It will be his responsibility to give voice to those who elected him, while acknowledging what we should all recognize, that he is the president of everyone who lives in these United States.

Inaugural addresses have inspired the American people before. Let’s hope the nation has not become so divided and cynical that it cannot happen again.

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