Revisiting Obama’s Selma Speech

Nearly two years ago, President Obama gave a speech on the 50-year anniversary of the march on Selma, Alabama (dramatized in Ava Duvernay’s 2014 Oscar Best Picture-nominated “Selma”).  I remember thinking at the time that it was a fantastic speech, beautiful and inspiring. I even saved a copy of it in my “speeches” playlist; (there’s no way to make that not sound nerdy, but I don’t care. I’m a student of rhetoric and it’s a great speech.)

Over the past two weeks under our new President, as many citizens mobilized to resist the extremism coming from the White House, this line from the Selma speech kept echoing in my head:

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I re-listened to the speech in it’s entirety three times last week, and guys–it’s still excellent. Still relevant, still inspiring–still brilliant words that can illuminate our way forward in this difficult, divisive time as a nation.  I really recommend that you listen to the entire thing, but if you can’t spare 30 minutes, start at 22:40, when he talks about our share of responsibility in the democratic process:

He goes on to list all sorts of people who made significant contributions throughout our country’s history–some by name, others by description. Many who pressed for equality when they had none, others who fought to protect American freedoms “even when their own liberties had been denied.” The more that I read about American history and reflect on our past, the more I am struck by the simple truth that the people we so admire now, who pushed for improvements that seem obviously righteous in retrospect, demanded radical change from the status quo. They didn’t accept the norms of their day as inevitable or unchangeable, and neither should we. It’s hard to pick an absolute favorite passage  in this speech, but this has to be a top contender:

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?

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At a time when the course of our country’s future seems so uncertain, I find so much hope in the people who participated in the Women’s March, the largest national demonstration in history. In the lawyers who rushed to volunteer at airports last weekend, and the people who welcomed those who were released with signs and cheers. I find hope in every person taking time out of their day to call their representatives, in the passengers on a subway car working together to remove Nazi graffiti, and in everyone who speaks out against hatred or injustice, at any level. The actions and words of our President do matter–but so do ours.america-bigger-than-one-person

America’s 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. Oh what a glorious task WE are given, to continually try to improve this great nation of ours!

The emphasis on the power of “we” and the firm anchoring of hope for America’s future in us, the citizens, is a consistent theme in Obama’s Presidential rhetoric. He echoed it in both the conclusion of his farewell address and his final press conference as President.

That “we” is a messy collective–a good portion of the American “we” voted for the current President–but the President is not the sole definer of our country’s trajectory.  And neither the people who voted for him nor against him can be homogeneously defined. As Obama said,”‘We are large,’ in the words of Whitman, ‘containing multitudes.'” And out of those multitudes comes “our very own sound, with all the sweet sorrow and reckless joy of freedom.” Our present is as messy and complex as our past–great triumphs intermixed with shameful injustices. Our American exceptionalism is defined by our continual acknowledgment of the imperfections, and the constant work to correct them. “We respect the past but we don’t pine for the past. We don’t fear the future. We grab for it!”

If you, like me, have felt at times since November 8 that “the torch we’ve been passed feels too heavy,” I hope re-listening to this speech encourages and inspires you, as it has me.

When it feels the road’s 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 to 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.” 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.

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