The photo says so much. The lady in the wheelchair is Amelia Boynton, last seen portrayed in the film Selma. She was the local leader of the civil rights protests in Selma in ’65. Now her hand is held by the first African-American to become president as she goes once more over the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
The man on Barack Obama’s right is John Lewis. On 7 March 1965, he was a young civil rights activist who led hundreds of civil rights marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Today, Lewis is a US congressman.
On the 50th anniversary of the first attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery to demand equal voting rights for black Americans, Barack Obama gave one of his very best speeches, recognising the great advances since 1965, but urging that ‘Fifty years from Bloody Sunday, our march is not yet finished’. His speech looked back to the suffering and brave struggles of the past, and gave recognition to the achievements of that struggle. But he also spoke of unfinished business – Ferguson and continuing racial discrimination, and the moves being made to neuter the Voting Rights Act.
It was a truly great speech – a return to the soaring oratory of his presidential campaign in 2008/9. You can read the full text here (I urge that you do), but here are some extracts:
In one afternoon 50 years ago, so much of our turbulent history – the stain of slavery and anguish of civil war; the yoke of segregation and tyranny of Jim Crow; the death of four little girls in Birmingham, and the dream of a Baptist preacher – met on this bridge. It was not a clash of armies, but a clash of wills; a contest to determine the meaning of America. […]
They did as Scripture instructed: “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.” And in the days to come, they went back again and again. When the trumpet call sounded for more to join, the people came – black and white, young and old, Christian and Jew, waving the American flag and singing the same anthems full of faith and hope. A white newsman, Bill Plante, who covered the marches then and who is with us here today, quipped that the growing number of white people lowered the quality of the singing. To those who marched, though, those old gospel songs must have never sounded so sweet.
In time, their chorus would reach President Johnson. And he would send them protection, echoing their call for the nation and the world to hear: “We shall overcome.”
What enormous faith these men and women had. Faith in God – but also faith in America.
The Americans who crossed this bridge were not physically imposing. But they gave courage to millions. They held no elected office. But they led a nation. […]
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? […]
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. 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.”
These are not just words. They are a living thing, a call to action, a roadmap for citizenship and an insistence in the capacity of free men and women to shape our own destiny. […]
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.
They saw that idea made real in Selma, Alabama.[…]
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, too, that action requires that we shed our cynicism. For when it comes to the pursuit of justice, we can afford neither complacency nor despair.
Just this week, I was asked whether I thought the Department of Justice’s Ferguson report shows that, with respect to race, little has changed in this country. I understand the question, for the report’s narrative was woefully familiar. It evoked the kind of abuse and disregard for citizens that spawned the Civil Rights Movement. But I rejected the notion that nothing’s changed. What happened in Ferguson may not be unique, but it’s no longer endemic, or sanctioned by law and custom; and before the Civil Rights Movement, it most surely was.
We do a disservice to the cause of justice by intimating that bias and discrimination are immutable, or that racial division is inherent to America. If you think nothing’s changed in the past 50 years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or LA of the 50s.[…]
Of course, a more common mistake is to suggest that racism is banished, that the work that drew men and women to Selma is 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 ears, and hearts, to know that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us. We know the march is not yet over, the race is not yet won, and that reaching that blessed destination where we are judged by the content of our character – requires admitting as much. […]
President Obama concluded with this stirring peroration:
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’s 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 are the hopeful strivers who cross the Rio Grande because they want their 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 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, Navajo code-talkers, and 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, and the volunteers who signed up to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq.
We are the gay Americans whose blood ran on the streets of San Francisco and New York, just as blood ran down this bridge.
We are storytellers, writers, poets, and artists who abhor unfairness, and despise hypocrisy, and give voice to the voiceless, and tell truths that need to be told.
We are the inventors of gospel and jazz and the blues, bluegrass and country, hip-hop and rock’n’roll, our very own sounds with all the sweet sorrow and reckless joy of freedom.
We are Jackie Robinson, enduring scorn and spiked cleats and pitches coming straight to his head, and stealing home in the World Series anyway.
We are the people Langston Hughes wrote of, who “build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how”.
We are the people Emerson wrote of, “who for truth and honor’s sake stand fast and suffer long”; who are “never tired, so long as we can see far enough”. […]
Because the single most powerful word in our democracy is the word “We”. We The People. We Shall Overcome. Yes We Can. It 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.
Fifty years from Bloody Sunday, our march is not yet finished. But we are getting closer. Two hundred and thirty-nine years after this nation’s founding, our union is not yet perfect. But we are getting closer. Our job’s easier because somebody already got us through that first mile. Somebody already got us over that bridge. 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 the words of the prophet Isaiah:
“Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not be faint.”
President Obama’s speech in full
- Selma 50th anniversary: Guardian coverage
- Selma to Montgomery: Martin Luther King and the march for freedom (Guardian archive)
- Songs of Freedom: the Selma playlist