Abe Lincoln and Martin Luther King cast their long shadows on inaugural events

As President Obama took the oath of office on Monday, he did so with his hand rested on copies of the Bibles owned by Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. — a symbolic gesture to two men whose influence was inescapable on Inauguration Day.

For Obama, the nation's first African-American president, the occasion of his second inauguration provided a vivid reminder of the legacy of both towering figures.


Obama has frequently cited Lincoln as his favorite president, and his second inaugural is a sacred occasion in American history. Lincoln's speech in 1865 is heralded as among his best, perfectly striking notes of unity and pragmatism in the frantic days before the conclusion of the Civil War.

But more than the legacy that speech has cast over all second inaugurals to follow, Obama's speech was in some ways the culmination of a political effort launched in Lincoln's shadow. Obama first announced his intention to seek the presidency in 2007 in Springfield, Ill. The then-senator said he selected the location because it was "where Lincoln once called on a divided house to stand together, where common hopes and common dreams still."

"The life of a tall, gangly, self-made Springfield lawyer tells us that a different future is possible," Obama said at the time. "He tells us that there is power in words. He tells us that there is power in conviction, that beneath all the differences of race and region, faith and station, we are one people. He tells us that there is power in hope."

Reminders of Lincoln's presence were plentiful for the president, with Inaugural Committee Chairman Charles SchumerChuck SchumerBiden administration stokes frustration over Canada Schumer blasts McCarthy for picking people who 'supported the big lie' for Jan. 6 panel Biden's belated filibuster decision: A pretense of principle at work MORE (D-N.Y.) organizing the proceedings around a theme commemorating the completion of the Capitol Dome 150 years prior.

"When Abraham Lincoln took office, two years earlier, the dome above us was a half built eyesore," Schumer said. "Conventional wisdom was that it should be left unfinished until the war ended, given the travails and financial needs of the times. But to President Lincoln the half finished dome symbolized the half divided nation. Lincoln said, 'If people see the Capitol going on it is a sign we intend the union shall go on.' And so, despite the conflict which — which engulfed the nation, and surrounded the city, the dome continued to rise."

Even the president's first act upon leaving the inaugural platform was rife with Lincolnian implications, as he officially nominated former Sen. Chuck HagelCharles (Chuck) Timothy HagelThe Afghan Air Force: When 'Buy American' goes wrong Overnight Defense: Navy medic killed after wounding 2 sailors in Maryland shooting | Dems push Biden for limits on military gear transferred to police | First day of talks on Iran deal 'constructive' 140 national security leaders call for 9/11-style panel to review Jan. 6 attack MORE (R-Neb.), Sen. John KerryJohn KerryNo. 2 State Department official to travel to China amid tensions US and Germany launch climate partnership Biden meets with Merkel in German leader's last official trip to Washington MORE (D-Mass.) and White House Chief of Staff Jack LewJacob (Jack) Joseph LewThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden argues for legislative patience, urgent action amid crisis On The Money: Senate confirms Yellen as first female Treasury secretary | Biden says he's open to tighter income limits for stimulus checks | Administration will look to expedite getting Tubman on bill Sorry Mr. Jackson, Tubman on the is real MORE to his Cabinet. They'll replace outgoing figures like Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonJill Biden takes starring role at difficult Olympics Club for Growth goes after Cheney in ad, compares her to Clinton Sanders to campaign for Turner in Ohio MORE, selected by Obama at the beginning of his first term in an effort to replicate Lincoln's "team of rivals."

The legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. also weighed heavily on Obama throughout the proceedings — just the second Inauguration Day to be held on the same day as the federal holiday commemorating his legacy.

Myrlie Evers-Williams, the wife of civil-rights leader and onetime King ally Medgar Evans, delivered the invocation for the ceremony.

Earlier Monday, King's daughter, Bernice King, described Obama's decision to use King's Bible for his swearing-in as "heart warming."

"The fact that the president is using daddy's bible is heart warming for me," King told CNN. "Because my father was first and foremost a preacher, pastor, it reminds people of that. ... The second is my father was such a healing leader and so was Abraham Lincoln. And our president in these times because the nation is so divided."

After the ceremony, the King family asked Obama and Chief Justice John Roberts to sign the family Bible. The men did so.

"I had the great privilege that the Bible we used was his Bible and they asked for it to be inscribed," Obama said, according to the AP.

In his speech, Obama referenced the slain civil-rights leader as he proclaimed "it is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began."

"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," Obama said.

The shadow of King continued to dominate throughout the proceedings. Even as the president left the Capitol Monday, he paused briefly for a moment of reflection before the bust of King located in the Rotunda.

"You know this is the first time I have seen this," Obama told reporters as he exited, according to The Associated Press.