Tuesday, January 22, 2013

In good company: The local significance of Obama's inaugural quote: "Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall"

As many others today are ruminating on the symbolic and historic implications of yesterday's presidential inaugural ceremony, allow me to dwell a little on a curious milestone of far lesser importance.

Until yesterday, no place in New York City has ever been mentioned in a presidential inaugural speech.  Not Ellis Island, not the Statue of Liberty, not Wall Street, not the World Trade Center, none of our fortresses or other towering landmarks.

In fact, New York as a city has actually been name-checked only once. (See below.)  But no individual place has ever been mentioned in what are considered to be the most memorable set of presidential speeches.

That is, until yesterday, when President Barack Obama referenced the name of a West Village gay bar -- Stonewall Inn.

"We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth."

"Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall" represent flashpoints of various American social movements.  With his mention of Stonewall -- representing the Stonewall riots and subsequent street gatherings of June-July 1969, considered the birthplace of the gay-rights movement -- the president has elevated the struggles of gay Americans to those of the women's movement (the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848) and the African-American civil rights movement of the 1960s (the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965).

The rhetorical flourish of alliteration unites these movements by the places in which they occurred.  Stonewall thus becomes shorthand for the gay rights movement.  But as it is the actual name of a bar -- still very much in operation, right off Christopher Park -- Stonewall Inn now holds another very special place in history.

The United Nations, of course, has been mentioned a few times, mostly in the 1940s and 50s. (Without surprise, mentions of the international body literally drop off to nothing after that.)  But all references relate only to the legislative body, not the actual place.  In fact, when it was first mentioned in 1949, by President Harry S. Truman -- "We have constantly and vigorously supported the United Nations and related agencies as a means of applying democratic principles to international relations" -- its headquarters in Manhattan had not even been completed.

Below: Federal Hall on Wall Street, site of the first American government and the inauguration of George Washington in 1789



When New York has been mentioned in inaugural addresses, it's because it was the location of the first inaugural address in April 1789, when the seat of American government was in New York.

"This occasion derives peculiar interest from the fact that the Presidential term which begins this day is the twenty-sixth under our Constitution," Benjamin Harrison remarked in his 1889 speech.  "The first inauguration of President Washington took place in New York, where Congress was then sitting, on the 30th day of April, 1789, having been deferred by reason of delays attending the organization of the Congress and the canvass of the electoral vote."

George H.W. Bush makes specific mention of Washington's inauguration in 1989, which happened to be the 200th anniversary of that event. "I have just repeated word for word the oath taken by George Washington 200 years ago, and the Bible on which I placed my hand is the Bible on which he placed his.  It is right that the memory of Washington be with us today, not only because this is our Bicentennial Inauguration, but because Washington remains the Father of our Country."

While this means very little in terms of the city's historical stature, it means a great deal to the gay rights movement, and certainly to the bar itself. Or as Stonewall Inn owner Stacey Lentz recently said: "We're not just a bar. We're the Stonewall. It's like owning Rosa Parks's bus. We don't own the movement, but we own the bus."

For more information on Stonewall Inn, check out our podcast #48 The Stonewall Riots (download here or on iTunes.)  


Pics courtesy NYPL

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