This week’s inauguration was rife with symbols. Loads of obvious symbols about the future. And one exclamation point of the past that went completely overlooked.
If the theme of the day was “inclusion,” then the inauguration parade was a veritable rainbow coalition of national diversity. There were ten high school marching bands from across the country; kids from inner cities, suburbs and farm towns. There were university bands full of Screaming Eagles, Terrapins, Wolves, Panthers, Tigers and Red Hawks. There were delegations of volunteer ambulance corps, metro law enforcement folks, military spouses and junior ROTC guys. The Lesbian and Gay Band Association was there. So were the Tuskegee Airmen and the Fighting 54th. Dancers and folklorists from the Navajo nation, the Wind River Reservation, and the Utuqqagmiut tribe of Alaska. Latin pride groups from Colorado Springs and Orlando and Sandy, Utah. Native Women Warriors. A children’s circus. Something called “A Therapeutic Equine Assisted Self-Confidence Experience.” Heck, there was even a bunch of space geeks from NASA.
For two hours they passed, folks of every background from all across the country. Until there was only group left to go. And then, at the last, in marched VMI. Participating in their 14th inauguration parade (a history stretching back to 1909 and the inauguration of President Taft), 1600 cadets from Virginia Military Institute marched in, a massive contingent stretching over 100 yards long. And as they passed, the VMI Regimental Band’s bagpipers launched into a rousing song to close the inauguration festivities. And can you guess what they played? Ah yes: “Shenandoah.”
Full stop. And consider the moment. This is VMI, the “West Point of the South,” the military academy that 150 years ago provided hundreds of student soldiers to the Confederacy, many under the direction of an unpopular, eccentric professor named Thomas Jackson. At the first Battle of Manassas, he became “Stonewall Jackson,” and many of his VMI students formed the backbone of the South’s greatest fighting force, the legendary “Stonewall Brigade.” They had fought the union army to bloody stalemates at Richmond and Antietam. They had achieved unexpected and overwhelming victories at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. And they had made the Shenandoah Valley a rebel-yell nightmare for any union troops who dared enter it. The Stonewall Brigade, the foot cavalry, the shock troops, the beating heart of the Old South.
And here they were, in 2013, marching right past Abraham Lincoln’s house. Here they were, on the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and 50 years since Dr. King’s dream, passing in formation before an African-American president.
It took about 3 minutes.
And then, just like that, the parade was over. The President and Vice President quickly disappeared into the White House. The journalists hurried off to their next assignment. The crowds dispersed and the crews started disassembling the stands.
Everyone was suddenly back to business as usual.
While Shenandoah echoed down Pennsylvania Avenue.