From Seneca Falls, to Selma, to Stonewall: The Rhetoric of President Obama’s Inaugural Address

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Watching President Obama get sworn in for his second term, I was struck by one particular phrase: “From Seneca Falls, to Selma, to Stonewall.”  The literature person in me loves the alliteration; the historian, the immediate images those three places bring to mind: the bravery and determination of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and later, the Suffragettes; the righteous and unwavering demands of Dr. King and the work of the SCLC in Selma, Alabama, the seat of the Civil Rights Movement; and Stonewall, the beginning of true rights for the LGBT community.

As a rhetorician, I marveled at how the president blended both language, history, and his vision for his legacy in that one powerful, multi-layered phrase. Seneca Falls. Selma. Stonewall. All American battles for civil rights that once seemed hopeless. All wars that were won with the help and vision of that period’s Commander-in-Chief.

Here is just a little background on those historic places and events that President Obama referenced.

Seneca Falls

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The Seneca Falls Convention took place in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. The gathering to promote women’s rights was the first of its kind in the Western world. Organized by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the convention produced the Declaration of Sentiments, its chief goal to provide to women the same rights and privileges afforded to men under the United States Constitution. It would be another seventy-two years until President Woodrow Wilson, after much cajoling, would back, and pass, the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.

Selma 

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In 1965, several years into the Civil Rights Movement, three marches took place. Each began in Selma, Alabama, with the goal of ending in the state’s capital, Montgomery. The first march is now known as “Bloody Sunday.” On March 7, 1965, approximately six hundred peaceful protesters were attacked by police with tear gas and clubs. Undeterred despite the brutality, just a few days later, a second march took place with some 2,500 people, but was forced to turn back in the face of additional threats. A third march was protected by thousands of U.S. Army soldiers and the National Guard. The nation was horrified by the sight of the peaceful protesters being brutalized; the Selma marches turned the tide of public opinion.

On March 15, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson presented, and saw passed, the Voting Rights Act.

Stonewall 

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Early in the morning, on June 28, 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gathering place for homosexuals in Greenwich Village, New York. The raid sparked riots by gays and lesbians who had had their fill of unwarranted harassment and intrusions. They decided to fight back. In less than a year, two gay rights organizations were formed, the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activist Alliance. Three newspapers were founded to raise awareness of gay issues and to push advocacy for gay rights. In 1970, the first Gay Pride Parade was held.

Things have changed a lot for LGBT people since 1969 but still, there is more to be done.  President Obama seems to want to make this last civil rights hurdle a part of his legacy. Just the mention of gay rights in his speech was a historic first. And hopefully, like others who have embraced change before him, this is only a first step.


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