Every now and then you need a little inspiration for the journey, an emotional boost to remind you that sacrifice does pay in the end. As I stood among the throng of witnesses at President Barack Obama's second inauguration, what resonated most were those absent from the occasion.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, President Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Malcolm X and countless others. Men and women who paved the way for America's first black president but never lived to see the fruits of their labor. Yet, there we stood Monday, on their shoulders, celebrating what America had become, and the promise of its future.
They weren't there in body, but in spirit they lingered on -- in the invocation made by Myrlie Evers-Williams, the observation of King's birthday, and constant references to the civil rights movement.
The connections between the past, present and future were evident, linked by men and women of courage.
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If ever we needed a reminder of what it took to get us here, it's now, while weighed down by burdens that threaten to crush us. We live in time of great uncertainty, with a struggling economy and broken dreams, an education system that's in tatters, and industries on the brink of collapse. We're besieged by terrorism, global warming, the fog of war, school massacres and politics that divide us.
Yet, as I stood in the crowd with a friend and my 18-year-old cousin, her eyes beaming as we awaited the moment when President Obama would take the oath of office, I couldn't help but feel hopeful.
For two of us it was our second inauguration. Our first was four years ago when President Obama was first elected to office. We weren't sure if we would ever witness such an occasion again in our lifetimes. But there we were Monday, pressed against the crowd, cold and shivering, but pumped up with anticipation and desperate for a glimpse of hope.
And we weren't disappointed. Evers-Williams, as she delivered the inaugural invocation, stood as a live monument of the sacrifices made on our behalf. Fifty years after the death of her husband, Medgar, a civil rights worker gunned down in his fight for equality, Evers-Williams was still living and breathing and committed to the dream of a more perfect union.
The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir's rendition of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, Beyonce's powerful performance of the National Anthem, the soothing songs sung by Kelly Clarkson and James Taylor, all testified of the nation's resilience and potential.
Then the moment came for President Obama to inspire the nation, and we were reminded of why the deaths of Evers, King and Lincoln were not in vain, and of the sacrifice that's required of each one of us to make America's promise a reality.
"Each time we gather to inaugurate a president, we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution," the president said. "We affirm the promise of our democracy. 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: 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."
This is what keeps us united as a nation, and coming back every four years, for a dose of euphoria. A promise written in sweat and blood, that's worth living and dying for.
-- Alva James-Johnson is an independent correspondent.