Barack Obama’s Most Important Speech

Donald Trump has a story of America. As was chronicled in his “American carnage” inaugural address, he suggests that the nation is being “invaded” by brown people coming into a country that is ravaged by crime and ill-served by a press that is the enemy of the people. The president’s aim is to take us back to a mythical past when everything was better, which is something only he can do. Ultimately, it is a story about division, because anyone who doesn’t submit is demonized.

No matter who the 2020 Democratic nominee is, their most important job will be to tell a more honest, compelling story of America. Back in 2015, Barack Obama provided a template for how to do that.

Early that year, Rudy Giuliani had set off a firestorm by suggesting that Obama didn’t love America. The accusation was made because of the president’s refusal to use the words “radical Islamic terrorist.” It became one of those stories that not only swirled around right wing media, but migrated into mainstream outlets as well. The patriotism of this country’s first African-American president was under assault.

All of that was happening as Obama was preparing a speech to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. He wound up using the speech not to defend himself against those charges, but to talk about what it means to love America. As this country’s story has come under assault by Donald Trump, I’ve found myself going back to Obama’s speech over and over again. In its prescience, it provides a reality check on the lies Trump is attempting to tell about our shared past and hopes for the future.

Obama began by noting that Selma is one of those places where this nation’s destiny was decided: “the idea of a just America and a fair America, an inclusive America, and a generous America—that idea ultimately triumphed.” He went on to note that those who marched across the bridge were reviled in their time, but they were true patriots.

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?

The people who crossed the bridge in Selma were part of a larger tradition.

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.

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.

Many things have changed since that march 50 years ago, but one remains constant.

[W]hat has not changed is the imperative of citizenship; that willingness of a 26-year-old deacon, or a Unitarian minister, or a young mother of five to decide they loved this country so much that they’d risk everything to realize its promise.

That’s what it means to love America.  That’s what it means to believe in America.  That’s what it means when we say America is exceptional.

For we were born of change.  We broke the old aristocracies, declaring ourselves entitled not by bloodline, but endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights.  We secure our rights and responsibilities through a system of self-government, of and by and for the people.  That’s why we argue and fight with so much passion and conviction — because we know our efforts matter.  We know America is what we make of it.

What follows is one of the most beautiful portrayals of America that you’ll ever read. It’s long because Obama gave voice to e pluribus unum.

We are Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea, pioneers who braved the unfamiliar, followed by a stampede of farmers and miners, and entrepreneurs and hucksters.  That’s our spirit.  That’s who we are.

We are Sojourner Truth and Fannie Lou Hamer, women who could do as much as any man and then some.  And we’re Susan B. Anthony, who shook the system until the law reflected that truth.  That is our character.

We’re the immigrants who stowed away on ships to reach these shores, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free –- Holocaust survivors, Soviet defectors, the Lost Boys of Sudan.  We’re the hopeful strivers who cross the Rio Grande because we want our kids to know a better life.  That’s how we came to be.

We’re the slaves who built the White House and the economy of the South.  We’re the ranch hands and cowboys who opened up the West, and countless laborers who laid rail, and raised skyscrapers, and organized for workers’ rights.

We’re the fresh-faced GIs who fought to liberate a continent.  And we’re the Tuskeegee Airmen, and the Navajo code-talkers, and the Japanese Americans who fought for this country even as their own liberty had been denied.

We’re the firefighters who rushed into those buildings on 9/11, the volunteers who signed up to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq.  We’re the gay Americans whose blood ran in the streets of San Francisco and New York, just as blood ran down this bridge.

We are storytellers, writers, poets, artists who abhor unfairness, and despise hypocrisy, and give voice to the voiceless, and tell truths that need to be told.

We’re the inventors of gospel and jazz and blues, bluegrass and country, and hip-hop and rock and roll, and our very own sound with all the sweet sorrow and reckless joy of freedom.

Notice how each one of those descriptions begins with the words “we are.” That is because there is one final lesson to learn from Selma.

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.” That word is owned by no one.  It belongs to everyone.

The country Donald Trump describes is not only fictional, it is repulsive. While Obama is clear that America is still very much a work in process, the seeds for progress are pulled from the strands of our past.

Beyond the personal backgrounds and platforms that various Democratic candidates have to offer, it is imperative that they find a way to tell that story of America.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.