5 Quotes From Obama's Selma Speech

by Chris Tognotti

How many ways can you credit someone's performance? They kicked ass? Aced it? Knocked it out of the park? However you describe it, that's what President Obama did today with his dramatic, stirring address in Selma, Alabama on Saturday afternoon. Commemorating the 50-year anniversary of the Selma civil rights march and the harrowing events of "Bloody Sunday" on the Edmund Pettus bridge, the first black President in American history delivered a downright masterful speech. Just check out some of the powerful quotes from President Obama's Selma speech — some of them are damn near enough to make your heart swell.

Obama's speech was preceded by one by civil rights icon and Georgia congressman John Lewis, himself a pivotal leader and organizer of the march that was met with violent beatings that fateful day — March 8, 1965. And the honor of having Lewis as his lead-in clearly wasn't lost on Obama, who was just four years old when the Selma march took place.

All in all, over the course of 32 minutes, Obama delivered what could very well be one of the greatest speeches of his presidential tenure, and maybe of his entire political career — personal, communal, historical and political all at once. Here are five quotes from the address that particularly hit home.

"It is a rare honor in this life to follow one of your heroes. And John Lewis is one of my heroes."

At the very top of his speech, Obama took a moment to honor Lewis, with whom he'd shared an embrace with before coming on stage. It was a touching moment, and it only became moreso while hearing Obama speak of a young Lewis' bravery in profoundly uncertain times. Everybody knows at this point what a talent for oration Obama has, but it's never more apparent than when the issue strikes such a deeply personal resonance with him.

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.

"We Shall Overcome"

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The outcome of Bloody Sunday, beyond just the grueling human cost — 17 people were hospitalized as a result of beating and teargassing by state and local police — was that it galvanized President Lyndon Johnson into a position of public support for the activists, and their plea for civil rights. On March 15 165, just one week after the grisly incident, Johnson delivered a speech before a joint session of Congress, in which he invoked a familiar, solemn phrase: "We shall overcome." Obama detailed this history beautifully:

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 toward justice. ... In time, their chorus would reach President Johnson. And he would send them protection, echoing their call for the nation and the world to hear: "We shall overcome."

"What A Solemn Debt We Owe"

The memory of Dr. Martin Luther King obviously looms large over a memorial such as this — King was slain by an assassin in 1968, just over three years after the Selma marches. Obama invoked his name movingly, describing how Selma opened doors for other minority communities, too.

Because of what they did, the doors of opportunity swung open not just for African-Americans, but for every American. Women marched through those doors. Latinos marched through those doors. Asian-Americans, gay Americans, and Americans with disabilities 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. What a glorious thing, Dr. King might say. What a solemn debt we owe.

"I Rejected The Notion That Nothing's Changed"

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While Obama acknowledged that America's relationship with race is still flawed and fraught — he said we "just need to open our eyes, and ears, and hearts" to know that that's true, and mentioned the Department of Justice's recent report on the Ferguson Police — he also highlighted the substantial progress that's been made, and urged people not to buy into the notion that nothing's really changed.

Just this week, I was asked whether I thought the Department of Justice's Ferguson report shows that, with respect to race, little has changed in this country. I understand the question, for the report's narrative was woefully familiar. It evoked the kind of abuse and disregard for citizens that spawned the Civil Rights Movement. But I rejected the notion that nothing's changed. What happened in Ferguson may not be unique, but it's no longer endemic, or sanctioned by law and custom; and before the Civil Rights Movement, it most surely was.
... If you think nothing's changed in the past fifty years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or L.A. of the Fifties. Ask the female CEO who once might have been assigned to the secretarial pool if nothing's changed. Ask your gay friend if it's easier to be out and proud in America now than it was thirty years ago. To deny this progress — our progress — would be to rob us of our own agency; our responsibility to do what we can to make America better.

"How Can This Be?"

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This was the most political the speech got, and it serves as a welcome reminder that these aren't sepia-toned struggles of the past — there's work to be done in the here and now, as well. Blasting "voter suppression" laws being pushed across GOP-led state governments, Obama asked those members of Congress in attendance to get to work restoring the Voting Rights Act to its full strength.

Meanwhile, the Voting Rights Act, the culmination of so much blood and sweat and tears, the product of so much sacrifice in the face of wanton violence, stands weakened, its future subject to partisan rancor.
How can that be? The Voting Rights Act was one of the crowning achievements of our democracy, the result of Republican and Democratic effort. President Reagan signed its renewal when he was in office. President Bush signed its renewal when he was in office. One hundred Members of Congress have come here today to honor people who were willing to die for the right it protects. If we want to honor this day, let these hundred go back to Washington, and gather four hundred more, and together, pledge to make it their mission to restore the law this year.

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