Selma: The Speech

March 8, 2015

Yesterday in Selma President Barack Obama gave an extraordinary speech about America, exceptional in its accomplishments and its promise, yet still lacking. Here’s the transcript and the video.

Selma is a place, for sure, but it’s known most for two events. There was a Civil War battle which took place only days before the end of the war. (The 150th anniversary comes on April 1, 2015.) And there were the marches.

The first Selma to Montgomery march happened on Sunday, March 7, 1965, 50 years ago yesterday. Blacks—Negroes back then—and whites marched for voting rights. State troopers and others beat 600 of them. Right here in America, with television cameras rolling tape.

Two more marches occurred, one on March 9, and the last one on March 21. And on August 6, just 152 days after the Bloody Sunday march, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The speech President Obama gave in Selma was extraordinary on many levels. That he was giving the speech mattered greatly. With barely a nod to the fact of an African-American as President of the United States, the president’s very presence spoke volumes about progress. But these words really demonstrated how far we’ve come:

If you think nothing’s changed in the past fifty years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or L.A. of the Fifties. Ask the female CEO who once might have been assigned to the secretarial pool if nothing’s changed. Ask your gay friend if it’s easier to be out and proud in America now than it was thirty years ago.

Most significant for me, however, was the weaving of three distinct themes:  the “We” notion; our exceptionalism; and our striving nature. After almost a dozen exemplars of striving, exceptional Americans—individuals like Susan B. Anthony, Fannie Lou Hamer, Lewis and Clark, Jackie Robinson, and Sojourner Truth—and groups, the president said:

That’s what America is. Not stock photos or airbrushed history or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American than other. We respect the past, but we don’t pine for it. We don’t fear the future; we grab for it. America is not some fragile thing; we are large, in the words of Whitman, containing multitudes. We are boisterous and diverse and full of energy, perpetually young in spirit. That’s why someone like John Lewis at the ripe age of 25 could lead a mighty march.

And that’s what the young people here today and listening all across the country must take away from this day. You are America. Unconstrained by habits and convention. Unencumbered by what is, and ready to seize what ought to be. For everywhere in this country, there are first steps to be taken, and new ground to cover, and bridges to be crossed. And it is you, the young and fearless at heart, the most diverse and educated generation in our history, who the nation is waiting to follow.

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. It is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone. Oh, what a glorious task we are given, to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.

Of course, President Obama mentioned Ferguson—the report from the Justice Department came out on Wednesday—but he didn’t dwell on it. The president acknowledged our failings, but he did so within the context of how far we’ve come, and how able and exceptional we are.

I’m not one for being content, and in many instances the discontent becomes, in the minds of others, negativity and pessimism. I think that’s exactly backwards. To think all is well leaves so much on the table, so many opportunities to strive for better. (For sure, time, place, and manner matter, and my comments are not intended to chastise or comment on anyone.)

We are living in a seismic time, getting used to our place in the world, and dealing with limits. For many, there’s comfort in the vision of an easier past. But we can’t go home again, and since we can’t, we—that means all of us—need to embrace the challenges and leap forward into the new day.

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