The President gave a moving and rousing speech today to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Selma at the Edmund Pettis bridge. (The full speech is included in the link.)
It is a rare honor in this life to follow one of your heroes. And John Lewis is one of my heroes.
Now, I have to imagine that when a younger John Lewis woke up that morning fifty years ago and made his way to Brown Chapel, heroics were not on his mind. A day like this was not on his mind. Young folks with bedrolls and backpacks were milling about. Veterans of the movement trained newcomers in the tactics of non-violence; the right way to protect yourself when attacked. A doctor described what tear gas does to the body, while marchers scribbled down instructions for contacting their loved ones. The air was thick with doubt, anticipation, and fear. They comforted themselves with the final verse of the final hymn they sung:
No matter what may be the test, God will take care of you;
Lean, weary one, upon His breast, God will take care of you.
Then, his knapsack stocked with an apple, a toothbrush, a book on government — all you need for a night behind bars — John Lewis led them out of the church on a mission to change America.
A clash of wills over armies.
In one afternoon fifty 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 — met on this bridge.
It was not a clash of armies, but a clash of wills; a contest to determine the meaning of America.
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. King, and so many more, the idea of a just America, a fair America, an inclusive America, a generous America — that idea ultimately triumphed.
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.
Who we are and what we can do.
What they did here will reverberate through the ages. Not because the change they won was preordained; not because their victory was complete; but because they proved that nonviolent change is possible; that love and hope can conquer hate.
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. Back then, they were called Communists, half-breeds, outside agitators, sexual and moral degenerates, and worse — everything but the name their parents gave them. Their faith was questioned. Their lives were threatened. Their patriotism was challenged.
And yet, what could be more American than what happened in this place?
What could more profoundly vindicate the idea of America than plain and humble people — the unsung, the downtrodden, the dreamers not of high station, not born to wealth or privilege, not of one religious tradition but many — coming together to shape their country's course?
Courage and activism inspires others.
That's what makes us unique, and cements our reputation as a beacon of opportunity. Young people behind the Iron Curtain would see Selma and eventually tear down a wall. Young people in Soweto would hear Bobby Kennedy talk about ripples of hope and eventually banish the scourge of apartheid. Young people in Burma went to prison rather than submit to military rule. From the streets of Tunis to the Maidan in Ukraine, this generation of young people can draw strength from this place, where the powerless could change the world's greatest superpower, and push their leaders to expand the boundaries of freedom.
They saw that idea made real in Selma, Alabama. They saw it made real in America.
America, democracy are ongoing works in progress.
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, too, that action requires that we shed our cynicism. For when it comes to the pursuit of justice, we can afford neither complacency nor despair.
Complacency and despair are not options given today's Congress and some of the federal courts including the highest, the Supreme Court. It should be noted that not one member of the Republican leadership
attended the commemoration today.
The two possibilities are that either they are genuinely uninterested in the anniversary, despite politicians in general usually falling over each other for opportunities to show their bold leadership and upright moral values by standing on a stage somewhere with television cameras pointed at them from all directions, or that they feel that attending would not play well to the base, as the saying goes, because the Republican "base" has been in no mood of late to hear about racism, or voting rights, or civil rights, or why legislative victories won by the marchers and organizers of 50 years ago ought to be still protected today.
As far as I am concerned, the Party of Voter Suppression, the KKK, the Koch boy spawned John Birch Society and other white supremacist hate groups did not want to rile up its far right base.
We are so much better than this. We have and will continue to fight against and overcome hatred and intolerance.
With such 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 communities they risk their lives to protect, and citizens in Ferguson and New York and Cleveland just want the same thing young people here marched for — 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 workers, and neighbors.
With effort, we can roll back poverty and the roadblocks to opportunity. Americans don't accept a free ride for anyone, nor do we believe in equality of outcomes. But we do expect equal opportunity, and if we really mean it, if we're willing to sacrifice for it, then we can make sure every child gets an education suitable to this new century, one that expands imaginations and lifts their sights and gives them skills. We can make sure every person willing to work has the dignity of a job, and a fair wage, and a real voice, and sturdier rungs on that ladder into the middle class.
We all own a stake in our country and in its democracy.
Of course, our democracy is not the task of Congress alone, or the courts alone, or the President alone. If every new voter suppression law was struck down today, we'd still have 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 or bubbles on a bar of soap. It meant risking your dignity, and sometimes, your life. What is 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?
Fellow marchers, so much has changed in fifty years. We've endured war, and fashioned peace. We've seen technological wonders that touch every aspect of our lives, and take for granted convenience our parents might scarcely imagine. But what has not changed is the imperative of citizenship, that willingness of a 26 year-old deacon, or a Unitarian minister, or a young mother of five, to decide 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 to believe in America. That's what it means when we say America is exceptional.
It is up to us to risk all that we have to preserve what is left. Given the SCOTUS ruling on Citizen's United in which billionaires and corporations can literally buy elections; the Republican Governor's relentless efforts toward voter suppression; the Republican Party's blatant war against women's reproductive rights; unbridled police brutality against minority groups, not to mention GOP efforts to block immigration reform, Democrats certainly have our work cut out for us.
My husband and I were moved to tears as we watched the President's speech. For we knew we were watching history in the making.