President Barack Obama

Justin Sullivan


President Barack Obama has always admired the Civil Rights Movement. Protest songs from the movement inspired his first election campaign. Many of the movement’s icons are personal heroes of his. So it was no surprise that he went to Selma for the 50th anniversary of the marches there. But the question was which Obama would show up to the event? The “Yes We Can” one that spoke to the morale center of a nation and overcame historic hurdles? Or the more recently muted one that sometimes sounds tone-deaf when talking about race?

Fortunately it was the former, and President Obama rose to the historic occasion. And then some. After seemingly biting his tongue for a good amount of his second term, the passionate, hopeful, master of ceremony Obama returned on Saturday to tell the story of race relations in the nation.

He used some uncommon history references in his speech and invoked some ideas you might have initially missed. To help readers understand how much was explored in it, here is an explainer on some of its biggest moments. Regardless of if you agree with everything he has done or not, this speech is worth watching and reading. It will go down as one of his best.

After being introduced by the legendary Civil Rights activist Rep. John Lewis, President Obama praised him as a hero. When he speaks of the Civil Rights Movement with reverence, he means it.

There are places and moments in America where this nation’s destiny has been decided. Many are sites of war – Concord and Lexington, Appomattox and Gettysburg. Others are sites that symbolize the daring of America’s character – Independence Hall and Seneca Falls, Kitty Hawk and Cape Canaveral.

Selma is such a place.

Immediately he establishes the historic importance of Selma. From the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War, to Seneca Falls where the first women’s rights convention was held, he links the Civil Rights Movement to the events that helped to define what America stands for.

And because of men and women like John Lewis, Joseph Lowery, Hosea Williams, Amelia Boynton, Diane Nash, Ralph Abernathy, C.T. Vivian, Andrew Young, Fred Shuttlesworth, Dr. King, and so many more, the idea of a just America, a fair America, an inclusive America, a generous America – that idea ultimately triumphed.

These are some of the many leaders of the Civil Rights Movement who often go unrecognized for their contributions. Many of them can be seen in the film, Selma. For those wishing to know more about them, here is our previous list of who you should know from the Selma marches.

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, half-breeds, outside agitators, sexual and moral degenerates, and worse – everything but the name their parents gave them. Their faith was questioned. Their lives were threatened. Their patriotism was challenged.

And yet, what could be more American than what happened in this place?

Here is vintage Obama speaking. He gives a history lesson on how despised Civil Rights protestors were in their time, and then makes you realize what they did was patriotism at its finest. As he invoked the founding fathers and the revolution that founded America earlier in the speech, he now draws a parallel between their actions and the Civil Rights Movement. This is meant to appeal to the morale of this nation, to A tool that Dr. Martin Luther King often used in his speeches, someone President Obama tries to invoke when he speaks. He is in rare form during this speech.

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 static monument to behold from a distance.

This is President Obama’s reminder that Selma is not a distant memory. Too often, the Civil Rights Movement and the history of injustices committed in this country are viewed as a thing of the past. A distant past that holds no relevance to what is happening in Ferguson, New York, or anywhere where racial tensions surface. To the contrary, he states that it is all relevant to the present and the future.

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’s right and shake up the status quo.

Yes, Obama is not always consistent when it comes to speaking up himself. But when he does, he is consistent in saying that the everyday citizen has the power to bring about change. This is one of the ideas he campaigned on back in 2008. It sometimes seems like he wants to do more and say certain things, but waits for the general consensus to swing in his favor first. He could emphasize this more, though.

That’s what makes us unique, and cements our reputation as a beacon of opportunity. Young people behind the Iron Curtain would see Selma and eventually tear down a wall. Young people in Soweto would hear Bobby Kennedy talk about ripples of hope and eventually banish the scourge of apartheid. Young people in Burma went to prison rather than submit to military rule. From the streets of Tunis to the Maidan in Ukraine, this generation of young people can draw strength from this place, where the powerless could change the world’s greatest superpower, and push their leaders to expand the boundaries of freedom.

The global influence of the Civil Rights movement cannot be understated. As many countries admired the United States, and still do, the international news coverage Dr. King and the movement drew inspired others around the world battling colonialism and oppressive regimes. There is a bit of American exceptionalism here, but his point is on the mark.

A rallying call to continue the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement well after the Selma celebration is over. As shown several times before, this is a reoccurring thing in his speeches.

This quote Karen Civil tweeted is a nod to Black America in my opinion. President Obama tends to slyly do this when discussing race matters.

That’s what America is. Not stock photos or airbrushed history or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American as others. We respect the past, but we don’t pine for it. We don’t fear the future; we grab for it. America is not some fragile thing; we are large, in the words of Whitman, containing multitudes. We are boisterous and diverse and full of energy, perpetually young in spirit. That’s why someone like John Lewis at the ripe age of 25 could lead a mighty march.

Clearly a jab at former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani for his remarks about President Obama, as well as the people who often say he is unpatriotic. In his own way he dismisses them for longing for a time that denied minorities the right to vote.

Ava DuVernay, the director of Selma, sums up the significance of his speech. If you have not seen it yet, put aside 30 minutes today and watch him speak and the remarks from John Lewis below. Words cannot convey how powerful a moment it was in our nation’s history.

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