5 Moving Quotes From President Obama's Selma Speech
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.
"We Shall Overcome"
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:
"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"
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.
"How Can This Be?"
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.
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