During the week in which Barack Obama was inaugurated to a second term as US President, there has been much talk of his legacy. The White House is working to a plan to avoid the usual second term pitfalls, while the pundits speak of legacy as though they can preordain the future.
The lead character in the novel “American Wife,” a fictionalised version of Laura Bush, muses that only men are concerned with leaving a legacy. She may be right. What is more arrogantly masculine than believing that only we control both the inputs and the outcomes of what we do with our lives?
Yet, regardless of the possible masculinity of legacy hunting, it is premature to begin thinking about Obama’s legacy now. He is only at the mid-point of his Presidency. 40 years after Nixon’s Presidency, there remains disagreement over his legacy.
In his second inaugural speech, Obama gave us some clues as to what he would like us to consider for his legacy. Climate change and immigration reform featured. But, in paying tribute to the coalition of forces that secured his victory, he hinted at his symbolic legacy.
“Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall,” rolled easily off his tongue. He confidently addressed gay rights in a way that no President has before. The first Latina Supreme Court Justice administered the oath of office to Vice President Biden. Richard Blanco was the first Latino and first openly gay person to deliver an Inaugural poem. Myrlie Evers-Williams became the first woman and the first layperson to deliver the Invocation at a Presidential inauguration.
If the pundits want legacy, Myrlie Evers-Williams’ presence on the Capitol steps virtually defines the word. At almost 80 years old, her legacy is one of continuing action and campaigning for civil rights, but one with accidental and tragic beginnings.
Born in Mississippi to a teenage mother, Evers-Williams was raised by her grandmother and aunt. Both schoolteachers, she followed in their steps. Myrlie enrolled at college so that she too could become a teacher. And on her first day, she met Medgar Evers. They fell in love, they married and they had three children.
Medgar became the state-wide organiser for the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Myrlie helped him with his work. Until, in 1963, hours after President Kennedy’s national address in support of civil rights legislation, Medgar was shot and killed outside their home.
Myrlie carried on campaigning. Interviewed in 2011, she said that she continued “out of my love and respect for him and what he did.” Her work involved three trials for the man responsible for her husband’s murder. Two trials in the 1960s produced hung juries; a conviction only secured in 1994. It included writing, running unsuccessfully for Congress, and working as a community organiser and fundraiser.
In 1995 she was elected as National Chairwoman of the NAACP, completing the circle begun by her husband three decades earlier. Her tenure is celebrated for steadying a storm-battered organisation. Evers-Williams herself once wrote “Almost none of those accomplishments were things that I, Myrlie Louise Beasley, from Vicksburg, Mississippi, was raised to do.”
Did the women gathered at Seneca Falls in 1848 imagine a woman delivering the invocation at a Presidential Inauguration? Did those involved in the civil rights movement of fifty years ago picture that woman being black, speaking at the inauguration of a black man? Did the men and women who fought back at the Stonewall Inn imagine that an openly gay man would share the stage with Presidents and Senators, at the inauguration of a President publicly committed to achieving full equality for gays and lesbians?
If there is a lesson in any of this, it is that perhaps those pundits who focus on policies as legacy miss the point. Policy matters as the framework for laws, but laws can change in the blink of an eye. Transformations cannot be achieved without policy. But they are measured through symbolism; that of Myrlie Evers-Williams, of Sonia Sotomayor, of Richard Blanco, of President Barack Hussein Obama all sharing a platform on the steps of the US Capitol.
The symbolism of a changing America has been talked about as Obama’s legacy for as long as he has been a national politician. The reality of how big that change is was visible for all on Monday.
His political legacy is another matter. Amy Davidson summed it up best in the New Yorker. “There were plenty of reminders of how impossible it is to know how any given story ends,” she wrote. Davidson could see what other pundits are paid not to see; that the accidents of life and the whims of others have as much say as we do in what our legacy might be. Just ask Myrlie Evers-Williams.