I loved Obama’s speech at Selma. It was one of his best. This president is a brilliant public speaker. I think we are going to miss these grand framing speeches when Obama leaves office. I know that I am.
A lot of pundits are saying a lot of things–mostly glowing–about the speech today. I don’t have a lot to add to the chorus, but I did want to say a few things about Obama the historian. My thoughts here are less about the references Obama made to historical figures and more about how his speech reflects, or doesn’t reflect, historical thinking skills.
Context: Early in the speech, Obama made it clear that what happened in Selma was part of the larger Civil Rights movement. Most people might take this rhetorical move for granted, but I appreciated it.
He also went further on this front. He connected the Civil Rights Movement, like Martin Luther King Jr. did so brilliantly in his March on Washington speech and in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” to the history of American freedom–Lincoln, Franklin, FDR, the American Revolution, immigration, women’s rights, etc… The Civil Rights movement was all about trying to get the nation to live up to its own ideals. Or as Obama put it, “Selma was a contest to determine the true meaning of America.”
Change Over Time: I think Obama’s use of the historical thinking skill of change over time was excellent. Here is what he said: “What happened in Ferguson may not be unique but its no longer endemic, its no longer sanctioned by law or by custom, and before the Civil Rights movement it most surely was.” In this section of the speech Obama rejected the idea that “nothing has changed” in America. There has been a lot of change in race relations over the past fifty years, and it is the historians responsibility (and in this case the President-historian) to point that out. This part of the speech reminds me of what my colleague James LaGrand recently wrote in a piece about how some are comparing what happened in Ferguson with Jim Crow-style lynching. Check it out.
Continuity: After leading with change over time, Obama reminded us that racial discrimination “still casts its long shadow upon us.” Yes, things have changed, but there is still work to do. What happened in the past still haunts us today. We are still affected by it. It strikes me that continuity works much better than change over time in speeches like this. I think that is largely because continuity appeals to what historian Sam Wineburg calls “our psychological condition at rest.” We all want to link the present and the past. But we all know that historical thinking is an “unnatural act.” It forces us to admit to things–like the fact that African Americans in this country are better off today than they were fifty years ago–that our inherent political or activist impulses might struggle to acknowledge. Referencing all the good that has come out of the Civil Rights movement might weaken our attempts to improve race relations today.
Complexity: Frankly, there was not much here. The complexity of the human experience over time does not usually work well in political speeches. Obama stuck to a certain story line that favored Americans overcoming obstacles and discrimination on the quest for greater freedom. He used the past effectively to make his points, but as we all know, the story of America is much more complex. Jefferson owned slaves. Jackie Robinson campaigned for Barry Goldwater. Lewis and Clark paved the way for the decimation of native tribes in the West. The drive to spread American liberty and freedom informed the White Man’s Burden. And so on. Obama also neglected to acknowledge that people like George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Billy Graham, Ronald Reagan, Booker. T. Washington, Nelson Rockefeller, Phyllis Schlafly and others may have also affected change in the United States.
I am not condemning Obama for invoking a past that is useful. References to Robinson’s support for Goldwater or Jefferson’s slavery would have taken away from his soaring rhetoric and probably would have been inappropriate for a speech like this. I am just here to point out it failed the complexity test.
For those of you who are teaching your students how to think historically this semester, I encourage you to bring the text of the speech to class this week and have them analyze it with a historian’s eye.
In the meantime, watch this: