President Barack Obama gave one of his most compelling speeches two weeks ago at the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Ala., on the road to Birmingham. Unfortunately, it was not well covered in the press and U-T San Diego buried it on Page A24 of the Sunday edition.
All Americans should be proud of that speech. I watched it on YouTube, but after I realized so few people heard it, I thought a shortened version here might be appropriate. So this column will highlight Obama’s own words and hopefully make his message more accessible.
The meaning of America
The president began by paying tribute to Rep. John Lewis, one of the leaders of the 1965 march across the bridge, along with hundreds of marchers “black and white, Christian and Jew, young and old, waving the American flag and singing the same anthems full of faith and hope.”
It was a march with a place in history that changed our nation’s destiny. There was heavy opposition, a clash of wills; “and a contest to determine the meaning of America.” And because of the marchers and so many who went before, “the idea of a just America, a fair America, an inclusive America, a generous America — that idea ultimately triumphed.”
Recalling that day 50 years ago, the president said, “We are well-served to remember that ... many in power condemned rather than praised them. Back then, they were called communists, half-breeds, outside agitators, sexual and moral degenerates. ... Their faith was questioned. Their lives were threatened. Their patriotism was challenged.”
What could be more American?
“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 ... coming together to shape their country’s course?
“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?”
‘We’ improve the nation
And then Obama called on the foundation of our American experiment, that very short word: we. “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.”
“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.”
A beacon of opportunity
“The American instinct that led these young men and women to pick up the torch and cross this bridge is the same instinct that moved patriots to choose revolution over tyranny. ... That’s what makes us unique and cements our reputation as a beacon of opportunity. Because of campaigns like this, a Voting Rights Act was passed. Political, economic and social barriers came down....
“What a solemn debt we owe. ... Which leads us to ask, just how might we repay that debt?”
No free ride, but equal opportunity
“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. ... Americans don’t accept a free ride for anyone, nor do we believe in equality of outcomes. But we do expect equal opportunity...”
Vote — no excuse
“Fifty years ago, registering to vote here in ... much of the South meant guessing the number of jellybeans in a jar or bubbles on a bar of soap. ... What is our excuse today for not voting? How do we so casually discard the right for which so many fought? How do we so fully give away our power, our voice, in shaping America’s future?”
The right to vote is almost a sacred right to America and, “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 unalienable 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.”
America is change
“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.”
“Because Selma shows us that America is not the project of any one person ... 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. ...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.
A great speech ... an American speech. One that all Americans — white, black, brown, Asian, Christian, Jew, conservative and liberal — should appreciate.