If you heard the Selma speech of Barack Obama, then you must have felt its specialness as the president took charge of each syllable, rolling off his tongue creating each moment, as if for history.
As speeches go, it was probably as fine a rhetorical example of speechmaking as the president has offered during his tenure.
I just couldn’t think of another speech I’ve seen him give during his presidency. A State of the Union? Too pedestrian.
His March on Washington address in 2013, on the 50th anniversary of the Martin Luther King speech? For me, that didn’t come close to the power I felt came from Obama at Selma.
Indeed, presidential historian Douglas Brinkley on CNN elevated the speech, calling it Obama’s “I have a Dream” speech for the 21st century. The way I saw it, when people ask what was it like to be America’s first African-American president, they will point to this speech and say this defined Obama’s vision of a new diverse and inclusive America.
If Obama’s legacy ultimately is being the Jackie Robinson of the Oval Office, then this is the one speech that will be remembered. (Robinson does get a shout-out in the speech.)
It had it all.
With the historic 50th anniversary of the Selma marches, the speech was automatically linked to America’s civil rights past. With the coincidence of the Department of Justice’s Ferguson report, the speech was also linked to our civil rights present. With the call on future generations to take us to new places in our march, which is not over, it was a blueprint for a civil rights future.
It also had enough of the coincidence of everyday politics without being an automatic turnoff for the gridlocked. What better place to call on the 100 Members of Congress present to go back and rally the others to restore the law being gutted incrementally by legislators and the courts.
There was just a taste of that, not enough to get bogged down.
Obama was on a different mission with this speech. This was an appeal to all time, to lay down what “We” means in America today, articulating the sense of our new American identity as an inevitable outcome of the diversity of people who make up our great country.
He began with John Lewis and Selma, but it expanded to include everyone.
In a typical State of the Union, or in any political speech, there’s usually a portion where the president states what I call the “litany,” an inclusionary rundown of all Americans.
Toward the middle of the speech, Obama artfully linked us all to the marchers at Selma:
“Because of what they did, the doors of opportunity swung open not just for black folks, but for every American. Women marched through those doors. Latinos marched through those doors. Asian Americans, gay Americans, Americans with disabilities—they all came through those doors. (Applause.) Their endeavors gave the entire South the chance to rise again, not by reasserting the past, but by transcending the past.
“What a glorious thing, Dr. King might say. And what a solemn debt we owe. Which leads us to ask, just how might we repay that debt?
“First and foremost, we have to recognize that one day’s commemoration, no matter how special, is not enough. If Selma taught us anything, it’s that our work is never done. (Applause.) The American experiment in self-government gives work and purpose to each generation.
“Selma teaches us, as well, that action requires that we shed our cynicism. For when it comes to the pursuit of justice, we can afford neither complacency nor despair.”
The litany of inclusion was throughout the speech, not just in one place. All the threads were woven into one.
And it made one come away thinking this wasn’t just an African American moment. Selma was for all of us, with 50 years, a milestone moment.
It was the perfect setup for the rousing end of the speech, which was all about America’s youth and our future:
“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 habit and convention. Unencumbered by what is, because you’re ready to seize what ought to be.
“For everywhere in this country, there are first steps to be taken, there’s new ground to cover, there are more 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.” (Applause.) That word 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.
“Fifty years from Bloody Sunday, our march is not yet finished, but we’re getting closer. Two hundred and thirty-nine years after this nation’s founding our union is not yet perfect, but we are getting closer. Our job’s easier because somebody already got us through that first mile. Somebody already got us over that bridge. 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.”
The president doesn’t talk about race very often. At Selma he had to. But he expanded on theme and made it about inclusion and diversity. More than the policy battles, that is likely to be his legacy.
Emil Guillermo writes on issues of race, culture and politics for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (www.aaldef.org/blog) Like him at www.facebook.com/emilguillermo.media ; twitter@emilamok