On November 19, 2016, we celebrated the 153rd anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The keynote speaker was actor LeVar Burton, one of my favorites. You may remember Mr. Burton from his outstanding performances as Kunta Kinte in the original “Roots” miniseries, or as Geordi LaForge in “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Or perhaps you either grew up or had children who grew up watching him on his award-winning show on PBS, “Reading Rainbow.”
You can see the entire ceremony here.
Mr. Burton gave a truly outstanding keynote address, challenging all of us Americans to live up to our creed that “all men [and women] are created equal.”
Starting off by telling us, “recent events in America have caused my heart to be disquieted and full of dismay,” he compared what Lincoln faced in 1863 to what we are facing today. “Our nation was then, as it is now, in turmoil, and he was faced with an America not dissimilar from our won. An America reeling from the effects of a very costly conflict–a conflict that was rooted in the opposition of ideas as well as ideals, and very much like today a conflict where combatants on both sides of the divide who were once neighbors, friends, even family now harbored hearts full of anger, division, and mistrust.”
He said, “In Lincoln’s time our nation was locked in a struggle over issues of race and class and the direction of our national economy, and we proved ourselves willing to wage a bloody war over which among us would have access to the tenets of our nation’s founding, those being life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and fifteen decades later these very issues confront us still, and the promise of America has yet to be delivered to too many of her children. So I ask myself exactly what part of ‘all men are created equal’ do we continue to fail to grasp?”
In drawing parallels between Lincoln’s America of 1863 and our America of 2016, Mr. Burton said, “Not since the occasion we commemorate today has the chasm that separates us been so pronounced, so profound. So, where do we go from here, America? I put it to you that we are here in this now moment a nation faced with a crisis that truly has the power to tear us asunder, and, unlike any outside force or influence, this crisis is one of our own making, and has been over the past two hundred years fomented within the framework of our own history.”
In one part of his speech he called out the United States for the dichotomy between its professed ideals and its actions. “Since our inception the United States has revealed itself to possess a national character that is, at its best, incomplete. We have forged for ourselves a duality of identity that on the one hand professes a love of freedom while on the other engaging in the enslavement of our fellow man based solely on the color of one’s skin. We say we treasure above all else a love of liberty and yet we are willing to imprison over one hundred thousand of our Japanese brothers and sisters in internment camps during World War Two. We claim to value justice while making legitimate through law and legislation the oppression of any and all we can comfortably classify as ‘other.’ And so, I ask again, what part of ‘all men are created equal’ have I failed to understand?”
After a charming and endearing reminiscence of his mother and the lessons she taught him, Mr. Burton then gives us all a challenge: “We must rededicate ourselves in earnest to the proposition that in this country all men–and women–are created equal. And as such we are all deserving and entitled to the dignity and respect we ourselves would want to be accorded. Otherwise, the dead which surround us here in this place will have died in vain.”
Linking us back to Lincoln, he continued, “Abraham Lincoln once called America the ‘Last Best Hope’ of Earth. I have always believed that of my country. I still do. Like you, I know myself to be a patriot. I consider myself a man who loves his country and strives daily to lend my efforts to those who are similarly committed to the ongoing greatness of America. Are we a perfect union? No. By no means, no. However, we have demonstrated time and time again that when we put our minds to it great things are possible, that when we pull together we are capable of triumph over any adversity.”
And finally he linked himself with Lincoln in challenging us as a nation. “Ladies and gentlemen, as Lincoln said here, one hundred fifty three years ago today, there is a great task remaining before us, and once again it is Lincoln himself who sets our course and lights the way for all of us, and I leave you with his words. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just. A way which if followed the world will forever applaud and God must forever bless. He speaks for me, does Mr. Lincoln. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, and just, and I pray, America, that as a nation we find the courage and conviction to heed President Lincoln’s sage advice.”
He received a well deserved standing ovation.
As usual, following the keynote address, and a reenactment of the Gettysburg Address, this year by George Buss, a naturalization ceremony made American citizens of a group of immigrants.
The weather was beautiful and the entire ceremony, with the exception of one person mispronouncing Mr. Burton’s first name, was superbly executed.
There were actually two Lincolns present, as well as Jefferson Davis.