SELMA, Ala. – (NNPA) – Throughout his campaign for the presidency, Barack Obama was dogged by one question: Is he black enough? The question was repeated so often that after showing up late for an appearance at a 2008 convention for the National Association of Black Journalists, Obama said: “I want to apologize for being late, but you guys keep asking whether I am black enough.”
Well, after a 33-minute speech Saturday in Selma, Ala. commemorating the Selma-to-Montgomery March and passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the question was settled: the president clearly is black enough.
Stepping out of his tradition of rarely discussing race in public, Obama seemed to step into a new comfort zone, referencing black spirituals, James Baldwin, Sojourner Truth, Fannie Lou Hamer, Langston Hughes, the Tuskegee Airmen, Jackie Robinson and even his favorite hip-hop artist, Jay-Z.
While connecting with African Americans, Obama also showed he had a deep appreciation for the accomplishments of the civil rights movement and a deep love for the warriors who pushed America to hold true to its creed.
“As John [Lewis] noted, there are places and moments in America where this nation’s destiny has been decided,” Obama said, referencing longtime voting rights activist John Lewis. “Many are sites of war – Concord and Lexington, Appomattox, 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,” he said. “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 – all that history met on this bridge.”
Obama made his comments at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where civil rights marchers were attacked so viciously by Alabama State Troopers that the confrontation became infamously known as “Bloody Sunday.”
‘A clash of wills’
“It was not a clash of armies, but a clash of wills; a contest to determine the true meaning of America,” Obama said. “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. Martin Luther King, Jr., and so many others, the idea of a just America and a fair America, an inclusive America, and a generous America – that idea ultimately triumphed.”
Obama also acknowledged the contributions of thousands whose names will never be known to the public, yet who played a critical role in securing the right to vote.
“As is true across the landscape of American history, we cannot examine this moment in isolation. The march on Selma was part of a broader campaign that spanned generations; the leaders that day part of a long line of heroes.
“We gather here to celebrate them. We gather here to honor 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 towards justice.
“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,” Obama said.
“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.”
‘Doors of opportunity’
Obama also acknowledged what many, if not most, African Americans have long accepted as fact – it was through their efforts that other groups obtained their rights – in fact, often ahead of black Americans.
“Because of what they [protesters] did, the doors of opportunity swung open not just for black folks, but for every American,” Obama said. “Women marched through those doors. Latinos marched through those doors. Asian Americans, gay Americans, Americans with disabilities – they all came through those doors.
“Their endeavors gave the entire South the chance to rise again, not by reasserting the past, but by transcending the past.”
The president said in order to be true to those who sacrificed to make America a better place, everyone – black and white – has an obligation to address America’s unfinished business.
“First and foremost, we have to recognize that one day’s commemoration, no matter how special, is not enough. If Selma taught us anything, it’s that our work is never done,” he said.
“The American experiment in self-government gives work and purpose to each generation. Selma teaches us, as well, that action requires that we shed our cynicism. For when it comes to the pursuit of justice, we can afford neither complacency nor despair.
“If we want to honor the courage of those who marched that day, then all of us are called to possess their moral imagination. All of us will need to feel, as they did, the fierce urgency of now. All of us need to recognize, as they did, that change depends on our actions, on our attitudes, the things we teach our children.
“And if we make such an effort, no matter how hard it may sometimes seem, laws can be passed, and consciences can be stirred, and consensus can be built.”
And justice for all
Obama addressed two hot-button issues – the criminal justice system and voter disenfranchisement efforts – directly.
“With such an effort, we can make sure our criminal justice system serves all and not just some. Together, we can raise the level of mutual trust that policing is built on – the idea that police officers are members of the community they risk their lives to protect, and citizens in Ferguson and New York and Cleveland, they just want the same thing young people here marched for 50 years ago – the protection of the law.
“Together, we can address unfair sentencing and overcrowded prisons, and the stunted circumstances that rob too many boys of the chance to become men, and rob the nation of too many men who could be good dads, and good workers, and good neighbors.
“With effort, we can roll back poverty and the roadblocks to opportunity. Americans don’t accept a free ride for anybody, nor do we believe in equality of outcomes. But we do expect equal opportunity.”
Regarding Republican-led efforts to suppress the black and Latino vote, Obama said: “Right now, in 2015, 50 years after Selma, there are laws across this country designed to make it harder for people to vote. As we speak, more of such laws are being proposed.
“Meanwhile, the Voting Rights Act, the culmination of so much blood, so much sweat and tears, the product of so much sacrifice in the face of wanton violence, the Voting Rights Act stands weakened, its future subject to political rancor.”
But the problem does not stop there, Obama said.
“Of course, our democracy is not the task of Congress alone, or the courts alone, or even the president alone. If every new voter-suppression law was struck down today, we would still have, here in America, one of the lowest voting rates among free peoples.
“Fifty years ago, registering to vote here in Selma and much of the South meant guessing the number of jellybeans in a jar, the number of bubbles on a bar of soap. It meant risking your dignity, and sometimes, your life.
“What’s 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? Why are we pointing to somebody else when we could take the time just to go to the polling places? We give away our power.
Hip-hop artist Jay-Z’s remix of the song, “My President” has the popular line: “Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther could walk / Martin Luther walked so Barack Obama could run / Barack Obama ran so all the children could fly.”
In his speech, Obama had his own line that showed he was in tune with Jay-Z’s lyrics: “We honor those who walked so we could run. We must run so our children soar.”