I thought it was a great speech. And I didn’t even agree with much of it.
But President Obama’s address Saturday in Selma, marking the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, was still a great moment because he made a passionate case for the values he believes in, but for once, didn’t demonize anyone, not even the white Alabamans who opposed the marchers.
He spoke with eloquence and passion. And most importantly, he cast Selma as a heroic moment not just for civil rights, but as an event consistent with the greatness of America, seeking to include all Americans in the triumph of the brave marchers that day.
From his remarks:
And yet, what could be more American than what happened in this place? (Applause.) What could more profoundly vindicate the idea of America than plain and humble people –- unsung, the downtrodden, the dreamers not of high station, not born to wealth or privilege, not of one religious tradition but many, coming together to shape their country’s course?
What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals? (Applause.)
That’s why Selma is not some outlier in the American experience. That’s why it’s not a museum or a static monument to behold from a distance. It is instead the manifestation of a creed written into our founding documents: “We the People…in order to form a more perfect union.” “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” (Applause.) . . .
The American instinct that led these young men and women to pick up the torch and cross this bridge, that’s the same instinct that moved patriots to choose revolution over tyranny. It’s the same instinct that drew immigrants from across oceans and the Rio Grande; the same instinct that led women to reach for the ballot, workers to organize against an unjust status quo; the same instinct that led us to plant a flag at Iwo Jima and on the surface of the Moon. (Applause.)
Obama of course invoked Ferguson, but he leavened it with an assertion that racism is “no longer endemic.”
Just this week, I was asked whether I thought the Department of Justice’s Ferguson report shows that, with respect to race, little has changed in this country. And I understood the question; the report’s narrative was sadly familiar. It evoked the kind of abuse and disregard for citizens that spawned the Civil Rights Movement.
But I rejected the notion that nothing’s changed. What happened in Ferguson may not be unique, but it’s no longer endemic. It’s no longer sanctioned by law or by custom. And before the Civil Rights Movement, it most surely was. (Applause.)
We do a disservice to the cause of justice by intimating that bias and discrimination are immutable, that racial division is inherent to America . . .
Obama unabashedly invoked the religious foundation of our republic:
When it feels the road is too hard, when the torch we’ve been passed feels too heavy, we will remember these early travelers, and draw strength from their example, and hold firmly the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on [the] wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not be faint.” (Applause.)
We honor those who walked so we could run. We must run so our children soar. And we will not grow weary. For we believe in the power of an awesome God, and we believe in this country’s sacred promise.
May He bless those warriors of justice no longer with us, and bless the United States of America. Thank you, everybody. (Applause.)
Of course, Obama being Obama, he claimed the American idea involves moral relativism and a rejection of timeless principles:
It’s the idea held by generations of citizens who believed that America is a constant work in progress; who believed that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths. It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what is right, to shake up the status quo. That’s America. (Applause.)
That’s what makes us unique. That’s what cements our reputation as a beacon of opportunity . . .
For Obama, all change is good. And anything that can be justified as helping any ostensibly aggrieved group is warranted. The civil rights struggle is akin to support for illegal immigrants.
As some of you noted in the comments section for the live stream of the speech, this actually diminishes the achievement of those who fought for civil rights. It’s the simplistic narrative of liberals today that every problem, every inconvenience, and all inequality is the violation of a “right.”
And every change in the status quo supports the betterment of society.
That is exactly the attitude that gave us the sexual revolution, the breakup of the family, and the plague of fatherless children, most prominently in the very black communities the civil rights leaders struggled to help.
Obama also shamelessly linked his own campaign slogan to the most hallowed phrases of our history.
Because Selma shows us that America is not the project of any one person. Because the single-most powerful word in our democracy is the word “We.” “We The People.” “We Shall Overcome.” “Yes We Can.” (Applause.)
But I digress . . .
That the 50th anniversary of Selma was marked by a black president was remarkable enough. But Obama spoke not just as a black president, but as a president.
Obama’s conception of America might be wrong. But he has a right to his opinion. The greatness of his speech was that he brought all of us with him to Selma. For just moment, Obama was a uniter, not a divider.