Many Americans might not realize that Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was not immediately recognized as the inspirational masterpiece it is. Only after some reflection and repetition did Americans come to fully realize that it ranked as one of the great speeches in the nation’s history.
It is possible that, with time, President Barack Obama’s speech Saturday on the 50th anniversary of the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., might come to be regarded with similar reverence.
Obama delivered the speech on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where, on what now is known as “Bloody Sunday,” more than 600 non-violent protesters were attacked by Alabama state troopers as they marched for voting rights. A number of those who participated in the march, now elderly, were present for the occasion, including U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who was beaten by police clubs and suffered a skull fracture during the march 50 years ago.
Lewis was the youngest and is the last survivor of the Big Six civil rights activitists led by King. As a Freedom Rider traveling South in 1961, Lewis was severely beaten in the restroom of Rock Hill’s bus station.
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Also present were relatives of former President Lyndon B. Johnson, who used the events of Bloody Sunday to inspire Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act. Former President George W. Bush and a delegation of 100 congressmen also attended, as well as first lady Michelle Obama and the two Obama daughters, accompanied by Lewis.
Presidential speeches rarely are the work solely of the president, and this speech was no exception. Obama and his speechwriting team reportedly exchanged five drafts before the final version was completed.
But those who helped compose the speech noted that Obama was the chief author. It was his language, his cadence, his eloquence.
Obama, a masterful orator, has given a number of memorable speeches, from his days as a senator, on the campaign trail and as president. Saturday’s speech surely ranks with his other notable speeches, such as his address to the 2004 Democratic Convention, his speech on race in Philadelphia during the 2008 primaries and his first inaugural address.
Obama’s speech on this momentous half-century anniversary addressed the events of that day, the heroism of the marchers and the long battle for equality.
“In one afternoon 50 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.”
But the speech proclaimed a much larger theme, one that praised not only the courage of civil rights marchers but also the courage and sacrifice of women who fought for the right to vote, of laborers who fought for better working conditions, of soldiers who fought in our wars, of pioneers and all who participated in “our long journey toward freedom.”
And the president stressed that the journey is not over.
“What greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?”
Obama has been accused by his detractors of using soaring rhetoric and his considerable oratorical skills to mislead and falsely inspire the American people. They say his speeches are nothing but empty promises.
True, he has failed to deliver on many of the hopes he inspired, on the desire for change he exploited but largely failed to bring about. And there are many reasons that is so, including the endless obstruction by his political foes.
But words matter. We shouldn’t diminish the power of the right words to move us to be a better people and work together to build a better nation. Obama’s speech told the story of America in all its diversity in plain but potent language, and it was a story to which all Americans can relate.
On an occasion that demanded a great speech, Obama rose to the challenge. It is likely to be a speech that is not soon forgotten.
With time, Obama’s speech on the Edmund Pettus bridge might come to be regarded as one of the best of the era.