What Selma teaches us about the American experiment
What is America? Every generation redefines our great country in its unique way, but I’m often drawn to those prominent thinkers who have defined our nation, as didAlexis de Tocqueville in 1831, as a “great experiment.” Every generation has at least one prominent leader who eloquently captures this idea of America as a work in progress. From Charles Sumner to Abraham Lincoln to Franklin Roosevelt toMartin Luther King, some of the most memorable speeches about our nation were delivered by leaders who reminded us of our founding ideals, identified our failings and called us to atonement.
Those qualities characterized President Obama’s speech on March 7 at the foot of Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, marking the Bloody Sunday voting rights march 50 years earlier. Obama’s masterful oration was one for the ages, not only because of the historic occasion and his soaring eloquence, but also because of his compelling characterization of America as exceptional but unfinished.
Obama went to the hallowed town of Selma much like Lincoln came to the hallowed ground of Gettysburg in November 1863. Both presidents eloquently memorialized a bloody battle for the soul of America. In Obama’s case, it was to commemorate that cold, late winter day in 1965 when hundreds of protesters, led by 25-year-old civil rights leader John Lewis, marched across the bridge toward Montgomery. They did not make it past that bridge, as an army of Alabama state troopers drove them back, while viciously assaulting dozens of them.
That brutality shocked the nation. It was a turning point in the voting rights struggle and prompted passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. “It was not a clash of armies, but a clash of wills,” Obama said, describing that violent day. “A contest to determine the true meaning America.” Contemplating the heroism of those who endured the troopers’ savagery, Obama observed, “What could be more American than what happened in this place?”
Obama’s speech was an ode to the real America, not the phony, idealized version favored by some. “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 is right, to shake up the status quo. That’s America.”
Obama noted that “so much has changed in 50 years,” but not what he called “the imperative of citizenship,” exemplified by those marchers who “decide[d] they loved this country so much that they’d risk everything to realize its promise. That’s what it means to love America. That’s what it means when we say America is exceptional.”
A century earlier, at Gettysburg, Lincoln honored martyrs to the same American ideal. Like Obama at Selma, Lincoln knew the ground upon which he stood was “consecrated … far above our poor power to add or detract.” Like Obama 101 years later, Lincoln understood “it is rather for us to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be dedicated to the great task remaining before us … that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”
Just as the Civil War did not fully secure that “new birth of freedom,” neither did Selma and the resulting voting rights act end racism or demolish all barriers to voting. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court tragically negated a key provision of the law in 2013. “There are more bridges to be crossed,” Obama noted, adding, “our march is not yet finished, but we’re getting closer.”
Fifty years ago, on March 15, 1965, a week after Bloody Sunday, President Lyndon Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress to propose his voting rights bill. It was Johnson’s greatest speech, his own moment to define the American experiment. “The real hero in this struggle,” Johnson declared, “is the American Negro,” whose “courage to risk safety and even to risk his life, have awakened the conscience of this nation … He has called upon us to make good the promise of America.”
As Obama would 50 years later, Johnson portrayed Selma as a defining moment in American history. “There is not cause for self-satisfaction in the long denial of equal rights of millions of Americans,” Johnson said. “But there is cause for hope and for faith in our democracy in what is happening here tonight.”
Like Lexington and Gettysburg, Selma was part of our nation’s continuing struggle to define and refine America, an expression of our fervent desire, as Martin Luther King Jr., said, “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.”
As Obama said last week in Selma, “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?”