Over the past six years, we’ve become accustomed to a president who can make great speeches. Maybe we even take it for granted. Perhaps that explains why President Obama’s address, delivered two weeks ago from the Edmund Pettus Bridge marking the 50th anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery, received only modest attention.
That’s unfortunate. I take note of speeches. To me, it was Barack Obama’s best. And that’s saying a good deal. I think it was the greatest American oration since Dr. King spoke on the Mall in 1963. In defining our national project, it approaches Jefferson’s first inaugural, Lincoln’s second and the perpetually unequaled Gettysburg Address. “What happened on this bridge in Selma will reverberate through the ages,” Obama noted. So will his words.
No doubt the president was moved by the sight of the famous bridge, the presence of aged, surviving marchers and the unyielding inspiration of his hero, John Lewis. Obama spoke of demonstrators who nervously scribbled notes to their loved ones in case they never saw them again. Lewis carried, the president reported, a knapsack stocked with an apple, a toothbrush and a book on government – all you need for a night behind bars. The then-25-year-old civil rights icon led heroic hearts out of a church on a mission to change America. There are places, Obama explained, “where this nation’s destiny was decided. … Selma is such a place.”
The celebration marked “the courage of ordinary Americans willing to endure billy clubs and the chastening rod, tear gas and the trampling hoof, men and women who despite the gush of blood and splintered bone would stay true to their North Star and keep marching toward justice.”
They might have been ordinary citizens, but what enormous faith they had, Obama emphasized, faith in God, but also faith in America. They were not physically imposing, but they gave courage to millions. They held no elected office, but they led a nation. We learned in Selma the powerless could change the world’s greatest power, he said.
The president noted that, a half-century ago, most condemned rather than praised those who marched. Their faith was questioned, their lives were threatened (and sometimes taken), their patriotism was challenged. But what could be more American than what happened on that bridge? “What could more profoundly vindicate the idea of America than plain and humble people, unsung and downtrodden, coming together to shape their country’s course?”
For Selma’s soldiers, the Declaration of Independence’s self-evident truth that all are created equal was not idle talk, but a call to action, a road map to citizenship, an insistence on the capacity of free men and women to shape their own destiny. That belief, and their almost unfathomable courage to act upon it, is what it means to love America, what our exceptionalism is, Obama said.
Still, some of the president’s speech was jarring.
“Despite the culmination of so much blood, so much sweat and tears, so much sacrifice in the face of wanton violence, right now, in 2015, 50 years after Selma, there are laws across the country designed to make it harder for people to vote.” As “we speak, more such laws are being proposed.” These marginalizing efforts reject the foundation stone of democracy fought for on the bridge. How, he pleaded, can that be?
The president wasn’t speaking only about North Carolina. But he was surely speaking to North Carolina. National election scholars report that our massive voting law is the most restrictive passed in the United States since Selma. The president’s Justice Department has sued North Carolina and Texas for violating the sacred trust to govern impartially for the benefit of all – for casting aside the idea made real on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
In this, North Carolina has not merely made a mistake or acted in error. We are not even just on the wrong side of history, bad as that verdict might be. The president has called us out as adversaries in the realization of the American promise, as having, through our governor and General Assembly, enrolled on the wrong side of Selma’s “contest to determine the true meaning of America.”
Such a sin against democracy is not to be tolerated and patiently endured. As the Attorney General has written, it harkens back to a dark time in our history. Grinning and mindlessly calling something a common-sense measure doesn’t change that. But, as Selma teaches, we’re required to. The march is not yet over.
Gene R. Nichol is Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor at UNC-Chapel Hill.