When I first heard that people were gathering to praise Selma, I couldn’t have been more on board:
Then I understood it was Selma, Alabama, not Salma Hayak, they were extolling. Honest mistake.
But I was still down with the struggle. Martin Luther King, John Lewis, and hundreds of others bravely marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the face of police violence and societal hostility.
Thanks to their courage, and overwhelming Republican help, the Voting Rights Act was later passed in Congress—just as the Civil Rights Act had been passed the year before, also with massive Republican support. It is altogether fitting and proper that we pay our respects a half-century later.
I even chided the Republican Congressional leadership for passing up a historic opportunity to reaffirm the commitment to equal protection under the law that their forebears stood for. (Even if George W. Bush was airbrushed out of many news photos.)
But when I heard that they would have to sit through another speech by Barack Obama, I had to admit that I, too, would have checked for tee times, rather than sit through another oration from His Articulateness. Life is too short.
But it began so promisingly:
The air was thick with doubt, anticipation and fear. And they comforted themselves with the final verse of the final hymn they sung:
“No matter what may be the test, God will take care of you;
Lean, weary one, upon His breast, God will take care of you.”
And then, his knapsack stocked with an apple, a toothbrush, and a book on government — all you need for a night behind bars — John Lewis led them out of the church on a mission to change America.
President and Mrs. Bush, Governor Bentley, Mayor Evans, Sewell, Reverend Strong, members of Congress, elected officials, foot soldiers, friends, fellow Americans:
As John noted, there are places and moments in America where this nation’s destiny has been decided. Many are sites of war — Concord and Lexington, Appomattox, Gettysburg. Others are sites that symbolize the daring of America’s character — Independence Hall and Seneca Falls, Kitty Hawk and Cape Canaveral.
So far, so good—if only because Obama is largely quoting someone else.
He went on:
The Americans who crossed this bridge, they were not physically imposing. But they gave courage to millions. They held no elected office. But they led a nation. They marched as Americans who had endured hundreds of years of brutal violence, countless daily indignities –- but they didn’t seek special treatment, just the equal treatment promised to them almost a century before.
What they did here will reverberate through the ages. Not because the change they won was preordained; not because their victory was complete; but because they proved that nonviolent change is possible, that love and hope can conquer hate.
And yet, what could be more American than what happened in this place? What could more profoundly vindicate the idea of America than plain and humble people –- unsung, the downtrodden, the dreamers not of high station, not born to wealth or privilege, not of one religious tradition but many, coming together to shape their country’s course?
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?
That’s why Selma is not some outlier in the American experience. That’s why it’s not a museum or a static monument to behold from a distance. It is instead the manifestation of a creed written into our founding documents: “We the People…in order to form a more perfect union.” “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
Again, very good. But I would observe that by this time at Gettysburg—more than thirty minutes having passed—Lincoln had finished his address, shaken every hand, posed for daguerreotypes, and was back on a train bound for DC. It’s all very pretty, but, like cotton candy, insubstantial. Lincoln said more of historic importance in 90 seconds than Obama has said in six-plus years.
And then he had the gall to say this:
[It] is to suggest that Ferguson is an isolated incident; that racism is banished; that the work that drew men and women to Selma is now complete, and that whatever racial tensions remain are a consequence of those seeking to play the “race card” for their own purposes. We don’t need the Ferguson report to know that’s not true. We just need to open our eyes, and our ears, and our hearts to know that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us.
If we want to honor the courage of those who marched that day, then all of us are called to possess their moral imagination. All of us will need to feel as they did the fierce urgency of now. All of us need to recognize as they did that change depends on our actions, on our attitudes, the things we teach our children. And if we make such an effort, no matter how hard it may sometimes seem, laws can be passed, and consciences can be stirred, and consensus can be built.
With such an effort, we can make sure our criminal justice system serves all and not just some. Together, we can raise the level of mutual trust that policing is built on –- the idea that police officers are members of the community they risk their lives to protect, and citizens in Ferguson and New York and Cleveland, they just want the same thing young people here marched for 50 years ago -– the protection of the law.
Together, we can address unfair sentencing and overcrowded prisons, and the stunted circumstances that rob too many boys of the chance to become men, and rob the nation of too many men who could be good dads, and good workers, and good neighbors.
Then why aren’t they? What’s stopping them? Why wasn’t Michael Brown a good dad? Or Eric Garner a good worker? (I’ll give you the Cleveland shooting: even though the kid was waving a pellet gun, it looks like the cop shot first and asked questions later.)
Ferguson turned out to be about nothing more than jaywalking (and the alleged overzealous ticketing of same); “New York” was about a man with a heart condition resisting arrest for violating of a city ordinance against selling “loosies”. What an insult to compare those tawdry tales of petty criminality to the saga of Selma.
But he wasn’t done (the video runs an astonishing 32 minutes!):
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.” 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.
See how neatly he inserts himself into the American narrative? The Declaration of Independence, the Civil Rights Movement, the 2008 North Carolina Democratic Primary. We are so privileged to have lived through it. I’m all for improving this great nation of ours, and we could start with his removal.
By the way, who remembers that Hillary actually got more votes, and a higher percentage, than Obama in the 2008 primaries? Other than herself, I mean?