I wasn't certain that President Obama would even go to Selma, Ala., to commemorate the 50th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday," and now some people are saying his speech there Saturday was his greatest ever as president. If that's true, it may be because Obama has made very few memorable speeches as president. Many consider his best speech to be the keynote address he made as an Illinois state senator at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. That's when Obama declared, "There is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America — there's the United States of America."
Others say Obama's best speech was the 2008 address on race relations he made in Philadelphia as a U.S. senator running for president. He said: "I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton's Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I've gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world's poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave-owners -- an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible."
I wasn't certain that Obama would go to Selma because there have been times when I thought he was trying to avoid being seen as a "black president," as opposed to being "a president who happened to be black." Some of Obama's past statements concerning race relations seemed toned down to me so he wouldn't come across as "too black." I attributed that both to Obama's trying to maintain his mass appeal as a politician and to the fact that his experience growing up in Hawaii and Indonesia wasn't the same as mine. I saw racism up close growing up in Alabama in the 1950s and '60s. Obama didn't have the same experiences. But his Selma speech embodied all the feelings of someone who did.
I especially liked Obama's quoting the Bible because I know people who refuse to accept his profession of Christianity. For some, it's his name that inspires intolerance; for others, it's his pro-choice politics. Obama paid tribute to the civil rights heroes who were beaten by Alabama police when they tried to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965. He stressed that while racism in America is no longer endemic, it still must be fought. Then he quoted Isaiah 40:31: "Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not be faint." In conclusion, he said, "We honor those who walked so we could run. We must run so our children soar. And we will not grow weary. For we believe in the power of an awesome God; and we believe in this country's sacred promise. May He bless those warriors of justice no longer with us, and bless the United States of America.
Was it Obama's best speech ever? It certainly was an important address, conveying a message this country needed to hear from its president. But I think he can do even better.
Harold Jackson is editorial page editor for The Inquirer.