Editor’s Note: Isha Sesay is CNN anchor and correspondent. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
When Prince William married Catherine Middleton in 2011, it was hard to ignore the fact that the occasion was largely white, male and entrenched in the sort of tradition the world associates with the British monarchy.
Fast-forward seven years and it’s clear that something significant has happened to the world’s most famous family.
The royals often seem insular, closed off and wrapped in tradition. Yet Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding departed from that tradition in a way that not long ago seemed almost unimaginable.
Let’s start with the music: A gospel choir sang Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me” during the service. A black, 19-year-old cellist performed while the couple signed the register. And the ceremony ended with a performance of Etta James’s version of “Amen/This Little Light of Mine,” a song that became synonymous with the US civil rights movement.
That’s not all. The Most Reverend Michael Curry – the first African-American head of the Episcopal Church in the US – delivered a blistering address, in a break from royal custom. He spoke for 13 captivating minutes, at one point quoting the civil rights leader, The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King: “We must discover the power of love the redemptive power of love. And when we do that, we will make of this whole world a new world. But love, love is the only way. There is power in Love. don’t underestimate it. Don’t even over-sentimentalize it. There is power, power in love.”
And the bride walked down much of the aisle alone, surrounded only by her young bridesmaids and no maid of honor. No man gave her away to another man.
The royal family, famously, doesn’t do politics. And one of the most-frequently asked questions, upon the news of the couple’s engagement, was how would Meghan fit in with this.
She has used her position as a well-known actor to speak out on issues ranging from gender equality to ending modern day slavery. She has publicly condemned US President Donald Trump and criticized the UK’s decision to leave the European Union.
But once inside the clan, would she be forced to shut up?
If today is anything to go by, it seems clear that not only does she have zero intention of shying away from the issues she cares about, but that the royal family is less allergic to change than the public thought.
She dropped subtle hints, which she allowed us to unpack and work out their significance on our own. In 2018, we heard a civil rights protest song performed in the home of the British monarchy as the whole world watched. She invited a black pastor to preach to the world the words of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. She walked herself to the man she has chosen to marry.
Meghan will know exactly how this will have been interpreted, as will the royals. And clearly, they are delighted by it.
And it’s obviously hitting the right note with the public. I covered William and Catherine’s wedding in 2011 and found the difference between the crowds of wishing the royal couples well striking.
In 2011, the onlookers were principally white and old. But here in Windsor, the diversity of the crowd shows that this new chapter for the royals is a new chapter for how the public thinks about the royals. People who previously never thought about the monarchy are now embracing it.
In a short period of time, Meghan Markle has ushered in a new sensibility and made the world recalibrate how it thinks about this family we thought we already knew so well.
The Duchess of Sussex chose to make her wedding day a moment where the world tuned in and were made to think about racial equality and gender equality. She made a decision to send the world a message.
It was a decision she made with her husband and with the blessing of the members of her new family. And it was powerful.