When Obama is publicly sworn-in on Monday as America’s 45th president, he will place his right hand on two weather-worn Bibles – one owned by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the other by Abraham Lincoln – and recite the oath of office. King carried his Bible during the civil rights movement and Lincoln used his Bible during his first inauguration in 1861.
It’s no coincidence that these Bibles collectively symbolize more than a century of racial evolution — it’s the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington led by King and the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, where more than three million black people were freed from slavery.
And Monday is also the official federal holiday to honor King’s life and his contributions to America. King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech 50 years ago at the Lincoln Memorial.
“Two figures that I admire probably more than anyone in American history are Dr. King and President Lincoln,” Obama said in a video released by the White House. “So for me to have the opportunity to be sworn in using the Bibles of these two men that I admire so deeply — and on the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington — is fitting because their actions ….is the only reason it’s possible for me to be inaugurated.”
For Obama, America’s first black president, using King’s Bible and Lincoln’s Bible is a powerful statement about the president’s support for King’s non-violent social movement and Lincoln’s progressive leadership during times of slavery.
And for those who argue that Obama does not speak out enough on issues of race, Monday’s swearing-in ceremony is the president’s understated way of showing his critics that he embraces the legacy of the civil rights movement and the black experience in America.
“These two Bibles represent the stride for freedom. One represents emancipation; the other represents inclusion into the fabric of the American experience,” King’s daughter, Bernice King, told The Atlanta Journal Constitution. “My father was a civil rights leader, but this reminds us that he was first and foremost, a pastor. Everything he did was influenced by the Bible.”
George Washington began the tradition of taking the oath of office with a Bible for his swearing-in on April 30, 1789, although there is no constitutional law that requires presidents to use Bibles during the swearing-in ceremony.
“I hope that the nation will use the moment not only to reflect on the responsibility we all have to serve, but also realize that the dream dad envisioned has not been fulfilled,” Martin King III told The Atlanta Journal Constitution. “I hope the nation is inspired.”
Indeed, the nation’s electorate seems inspired by the president’s leadership: Obama’s job approval rating is now at 52 percent, one of the highest ratings he’s had since becoming president, according to a study by the Pew Research Center.
Perhaps it’s also fortuitous that Obama, through a Bible, will call attention to King’s philosophy of non-violent change at a time when the president is overhauling gun control laws and taking intense criticism from the National Rifle Association.
“Our President is in many ways a living fulfillment of dreams Dr. King could only hope to see,” Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, (D-MD) said in a statement. “While his swearing-in will be an historic nod to how far our country has come, we must also realize that the struggle for government of, by and for all Americans is not over.”