When I watched President Barack Obama deliver his speech at Selma I was struck by how moving it was and how he tied together a brutal history with the courage and hope of those who changed history at the Edmund Pettus bridge. There are complexities though that bear re-reading the speech.
The president mixed his words a bit when he said Selma was “a clash of wills” where “the idea of a just America and a fair America, an inclusive America, and a generous America – that idea ultimately triumphed.” I suppose he might have been a bit bolder and acknowledged that it wasn’t just a clash of wills but a clash of ideas, the open and tolerant ones he mentioned and the small minded blinkered ideas that run through American history.
The president both denied that Ferguson is proof that little has changed in this country and that it is some sort of aberration in twenty-first century America. Given the recent news from the University of Oklahoma, there is much work to do. The president gave Rudy Giuliani (and the birthers and their fellow travelers) the backhand they deserve – America is not “feeble attempts to define some of us as more American than others” – a reproach to the notion that many hold, that some of us bleed red, white, and blue and others are suspect.
Yet much of the speech was a rebuke to the Giulianis of the country, the ones who think if an American didn’t grow up like them they just aren’t American at all. In one paragraph he equated “patriots (who) … choose revolution over tyranny” “Immigrants from across oceans and the Rio Grande, women (who) … reach for the ballot, (and) workers to organize against an unjust status quo … with the instinct (I’d like the word idea better here) that led us to plant a flag at Iwo Jima and on the surface of the Moon.”
Americans do not stand still in the face of injustice, the president argued, and the disempowered around the world respond to that example: behind the Iron Curtain, at Soweto, in Burma, Tunis and Maidan in the Ukraine. “America is a constant work in progress; (generations) who believed that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths.” The president echoes Lincoln here, when he responded to Douglas, “It is said in one of the admonitions of the Lord, ‘As your Father in Heaven is perfect, be ye also perfect.’” Though no person and no nation can be perfect, it is a constant work to most closely proximate the ideal of justice.
I suppose some of my friends who would like to sacralize the separation of church and state will have a problem with the president’s speech. Of the Selma marchers he recalled that “They did as Scripture instructed: ‘Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.’ As we move forward together, the president said, we should heed the words of Isiah: “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.”
One would suppose that Selma would be an American place that is close to holy ground. Not so for the nation’s Republican leadership. Except for one member of the House leadership who apparently went as a face-saving measure, none of the GOP congressional leaders attended (former President George W. Bush did, to his credit). As President Obama noted, Democrats and Republicans worked together to pass the Voting Rights Act in the wake of Selma. Indeed, Republican moderates pushed the Democrats and President Lyndon Johnson on voting rights; without them the intransigence of Southern Democrats could not have been overcome. The absence of the Republican leadership was truly shameful.
There is a good deal in the speech, and I’m sure I’ve missed many layers. It bears re-reading.