Obama the Historian

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:

3 thoughts on “Obama the Historian

  1. And for the record, the administration's 'Ferguson report' given a statistical fisking:


    Ferguson fake-out: Justice Department’s bogus report

    Still pushing dubious charges: Attorney General Eric Holder's “proof” of racism in the Ferguson, Mo., police department doesn't hold up.

    Addressing the nation from Selma, Ala., on Saturday, President Obama said that while racism may be “no longer endemic,” as it was 50 years ago, his Justice Department’s report on Ferguson shows that the “nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us.”

    Sorry: The Justice report doesn’t prove disparate treatment, let alone discrimination.

    In fact, it looks more like something ginned up to distract from the embarrassing fact that Justice (in another report released the same day) wound up fully validating the findings of the Ferguson grand jury.
    Racism is serious, and those engaging in it should be shamed — but we should have real evidence before accusing others of it. And every one of the Justice report’s main claims of evidence of discrimination falls short.

    Starting with the primary numerical claim. The report notes on Page 4: “Ferguson’s law-enforcement practices overwhelmingly impact African-Americans.

    “Data collected by the Ferguson Police Department from 2012 to 2014 shows that African-Americans account for 85 percent of vehicle stops, 90 percent of citations, and 93 percent of arrests made by FPD officers, despite comprising only 67 percent of Ferguson’s population.”

    Those statistics don’t prove racism, because blacks don’t commit traffic offenses at the same rate as other population groups.

    The Bureau of Justice Statistics’ 2011 Police-Public Contact Survey indicates that, nationwide, blacks were 31 percent more likely than whites to be pulled over for a traffic stop.

    Ferguson is a black-majority town. If its blacks were pulled over at the same rate as blacks nationally, they’d account for 87.5 percent of traffic stops.

    In other words, the numbers actually suggest that Ferguson police may be slightly less likely to pull over black drivers than are their national counterparts. They certainly don’t show that Ferguson is a hotbed of racism.

    Critics may assert that that “31 percent more likely” figure simply shows that racism is endemic to police forces nationwide.

    Hmm: The survey also reveals that men are 42 percent more likely than women to be pulled over for traffic stops. Should we conclude that police are biased against men, or that men drive more recklessly?

    In fact, blacks die in car accidents at a rate about twice their share of car owners.

    A 2006 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study found that black drivers who were killed in accidents have the highest rate of past convictions for speeding and for other moving violations. This suggests that there are a lot of unsafe black drivers, not racism.

    Etc. As they say, read the whole thing. History, schmystery. The administration is not playing straight with the facts.


  2. The invocation of Ferguson was historically disproportionate to Selma and gratuitously divisive.

    “What happened in Ferguson may not be unique,” he said, “but it’s no longer endemic. It’s no longer sanctioned by law or custom, and before the civil rights movement, it most surely was.”

    What “happened” in Ferguson was that

    DOJ Report Makes a Strong Case That Darren Wilson Shot Michael Brown in Self-Defense
    The feds find that the witnesses who made Wilson look the worst were the worst witnesses.

    Jacob Sullum|Mar. 9, 2015 2:21 pm


    President Obama only furthered a lie that is now accepted as “common knowledge” among many black people.


    Bridgette Traveler, 48, a disabled Army veteran who came from Shreveport, La., was in Ferguson last year protesting the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown.

    “We have a long way to go when Michael Brown was killed for just walking down the street,” Ms. Traveler said.

    Some attendees still angry about the Ferguson case interrupted Mr. Obama’s speech, banging a drum, holding up signs that read “Stop the Violence” and chanting “We Want Change.”

    Forget history. We can't even agree on what happened a few months ago. This speech should not be applauded.


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