By George E. Curry
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 the 2008 annual convention of the National Association of Black Journalists in Las Vegas, Obama said, “I want to apologize for being late, but you guys keep asking whether I am Black enough.”
After a 33-minute speech Saturday in Selma, Ala. commemorating the Selma to Montgomery March and passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, nobody was asking: Is Barack Obama Black enough?
President Obama rarely discussed the issue of race in his first six years in office except in reaction to a major racial catastrophe such as the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin in Florida and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. or the arrest of Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. for breaking into his own home.
On Saturday, however, President Obama seemed comfortable discussing race in public, showing he has a deep appreciation for the accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement and quoting or referencing the Bible, 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, President Obama also underscored the significance of civil rights warriors making America hold true to its creed.
“As John [Lewis] noted, there are places and moments in America where this nation’s destiny has been decided. 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,” the president said.
“Selma is such a place. 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.”
He made his comments with the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where civil rights marchers were attacked by Alabama State Troopers on “Bloody Sunday,” serving as a backdrop.
“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.”
President Obama also acknowledged the contributions of thousands whose name will never be known to the public yet 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. 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.”
President Obama admitted 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 Blacks.
“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. 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.”
He said, “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.”
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.”
He added, “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.”