A look back at a remarkable week in American history

Por en Chicago 01/28/13 12:39pm
U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) (L) participates in a reenacted swearing-in with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in the Old Senate Chamber at the U.S. Capitol January 3, 2013 in Washington, DC. Biden swore in the newly-elected and re-elected senators earlier in the day on the floor of the current Senate chamber. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

It can be easy to miss, and this past week has seen a number of developments that would have seem unthinkable just a decade ago.

Consider the following.

Last Monday, the nations first elected and reelected black president, after taking his oath of office, delivered an address in which he evoked the struggles of women, gay people and civil rights advocates as central to the American creed of equality. He also spoke of the need for all to consider the love between our “gay brothers and sisters” the same as any others.

That same day a record number, six, of openly gay congressmen began their third week of service in the 113th Congress.

On Thursday outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lifted the combat ban for female soldiers, opening 200,000 jobs for women and eliminating one of the last remaining barriers in the military.

On Sunday, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation that made the state the fourth in the nation to allow undocumented residents to hold a driver’s licenses. The state joined New Mexico, Washington and Utah as granting this privilege.

Today, a group of eight senators from both major political parties are expected to announce the principles of national immigration reform that is anticipated to include a pathway to citizenship for many of the estimated 11 million undocumented residents.

In area after area, in other words, the nation is moving in a more inclusive and democratic direction at different levels of government.

During the past four years since President Obama’s election it has become fashionable to invoke the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

While it is true that King did indeed say these words, he also in a number of speeches took on the assumption that God is on the side of progress or that advances in any area are inevitable.

His classic Letter from a Birmingham Jail is one of those:

“Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”

It’s also important to note that each of these developments is incomplete and faces opposition.

The number of gay representatives is barely over 1 percent, far lower than the share of the population.

Obama’s efforts at immigration reform are likely to face stiff opposition, particularly in the Republican-controlled House.

Many conservative commentators decried Obama’s inaugural address as a paean to liberalism and big government.

As we wrote yesterday, lifting the combat service ban is likely to increase the ranks of female veterans with significant disabilities who are already overrepresented relative to their ranks in the military.

But the dual facts that the work is incomplete and faces strong opposition heightens, rather than obscures, the magnitude of what has occurred.

We will watch this coming week with interest.