From center to left: President Barack Obama; Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.); first lady Michelle Obama; Sasha Obama; Michelle Obama’s mother, Marian Robinson; and Malia Obama at the front of the crowd in Selma, Ala., March 7, 2015
The White House

On the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Ala., President Barack Obama delivered a rousing speech before an estimated crowd of 40,000 on the Edmund Pettus Bridge that placed honoring Selma’s legacy at the cornerstone of his remaining presidency.

Obama’s strong speech came on a day of commemoration, which featured a host of visiting political dignitaries and cultural celebrities including Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), former President George W. Bush, Attorney General Eric Holder, National Security Adviser Susan Rice and actor Danny Glover.

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Introduced by Lewis, who received a brutal beating in Selma 50 years earlier, Obama began his speech by recognizing the former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and last living March on Washington speaker as one of his personal heroes.

Obama proceeded to recount Selma’s importance as one of the enduring markers of American democracy. “All that history met on this bridge,” explained Obama. “A contest to determine the true meaning of America.” Announcing a roll call of civil rights activists who made Selma’s victory possible, Obama placed “the courage of ordinary Americans willing to endure billy clubs” who “marched toward justice” in the face of unspeakable violence.

The early parts of the speech found Obama playing historian in chief, linking the protests in Selma to President Lyndon Johnson’s successful passage of the Voting Rights Act. “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,” noted Obama. “Back then they were called communists or half-breeds or outside agitators, sexual and moral degenerates, and worse.”

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This was not your usual civil-rights-commemoration speech. Issues such as poverty, mass incarceration and voting rights were discussed with a nuance and depth missing from the State of the Union.

Obama followed up this unusually insightful and historically complex description of the civil rights era by asking an important rhetorical question: “What could be more American than what happened in this place?”

Like Martin Luther King Jr. in “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” and Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech, Obama characterized civil rights activists as bold and courageous prophets who, like Prometheus, brought the nation a democratic fire that burns to this day.

After serving up an appropriately complex history lesson, Obama switched into the role of philosopher. Selma, argued the president, “vindicated the very idea of America,” with its disparate, ragtag group of ordinary black citizens and white allies, of varied religious, political and ideological orientations coming together to proclaim that America remained an unfinished nation. The belief “that we are strong enough to be self-critical and that each successive generation could look upon our imperfections,” said Obama, provides inspiration to organize for social justice in our own time. “That’s what this movement was all about, one leg in our long journey toward freedom.”

Obama placed the spirit of Selma alongside the nation’s revolutionary and immigrant roots, victory in World War II, and struggle for women’s equality and labor rights before adding, in a well-received rhetorical flourish, that justice required “the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what is right, shake up the staus quo. That’s America.”

Obama spent the rest of the speech channeling the community organizer who made him the most dynamic presidential candidate in American history.

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After laying the groundwork for why radical democracy proved so important domestically, Obama cited Selma as a clarion call that inspired global communities living behind the Iron Curtain, under racial apartheid and military rule.

Switching from philosopher to preacher, Obama cast Selma as a hopeful beacon whose reverberations could be seen in the “presence of African Americans who run boardrooms, who sit on the bench, who serve in elected office from small town to big cities, from the Congressional Black Caucus all the way to the Oval Office.”

Selma helped “the doors of opportunity swing open for not just black folks but for every American. Women marched through those doors; Latinos marched through those door. Asian Americans, gay Americans, Americans with physical disabilities—they all marched through those doors.”

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The president continued his extraordinary speech by remarking that the work for racial justice continues. “When it comes to the pursuit of justice, we can afford neither complacency nor despair,” explained Obama. The president discussed Ferguson as not a cause for despair but an opportunity to continue the long struggle toward equality and freedom. He implored all Americans to face reality by possessing the “moral imagination” of the civil rights era and recognizing that “change depends on our efforts and our attitudes.”

On this score Obama observed that “with such an effort, we can make sure that our criminal-justice system serves all and not just some.” Obama concluded his speech with a call to arms, issuing a full-throated call for the restoration of the Voting Rights Act.

To truly honor the legacy of Selma he so eloquently outlined, the nation’s first black president should order a radical shift of the Justice Department’s criminal-justice grants from incarcerating hundreds of thousands of African Americans to offering jobs, rehabilitation and education. The first order of business in renewing the dream of Selma now is restoring the millions of black families who have experienced economic and spiritual devastation at the hands of institutions that President Obama still has power to influence. 

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Obama’s brilliantly nuanced speech will require bold executive action to become enduringly substantive, but on this day it stands out as a truly historic message that black lives matter not only in the past but right now.    

Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.