The president’s speech at Selma on Saturday will definitely make the history books as one of his finest flights of oratory. But it was notable not just for its heights but for its gritty practical impact. It was not one of those “civil rights speeches” absolutely anyone could nod along with, safely distant from the revered events of a past rapidly receding into history. Indeed, its central thrust was to insist the dynamics of Bloody Sunday are still being played out on the streets and in the courts and Congress.
[O]ne day’s commemoration, no matter how special, is not enough. If Selma taught us anything, it’s that our work is never done. 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.
Obama was self-consciously provocative in drawing parallels between 1965 and 2015:
As we commemorate their achievement, we are well-served to remember that at the time of the marches, many in power condemned rather than praised them. Back then, they were called Communists, or half-breeds, or outside agitators, sexual and moral degenerates, and worse — they were called everything but the name their parents gave them. Their faith was questioned. Their lives were threatened. Their patriotism challenged.
Sound familiar? Even more pointedly, Obama devoted a big chunk of his speech to an effort to reclaim the Declaration of Independence–which many conservatives today use to claim a divine mandate for absolute property rights, official Christianity, an eternal ban on reproductive rights, and unlimited gun rights as constituting a perennial threat of violent revolution–and the doctrine of “American exceptionalism.” And he was absolutely determined to make things uncomfortable for the conservative pols present at this “bipartisan” commemoration who have abandoned the bipartisan commitment to voting rights that was the most immediate product of Bloody Sunday.
As Nancy LeTourneau noted over the weekend, perhaps the most audacious aspect of the speech was the president’s litany on “We the People,” which not only challenged exclusivist ideas of Americanism but insisted on the higher common purpose of government as the vindicator of rights and aspirations rather than the handmaid or the tormenter of powerful individuals, the only Americans who really matter. Like much of the speech, it was meant to grate on nerves.
And for that we should be grateful. We cannot imagine this one speech will suddenly revive prospects for voting rights or criminal justice or police reform, or make the haughty see the humble as fellow citizens. But it did help keep the memories of Selma and those who struggled there alive, in all their urgent intensity.