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Obama At Selma: A Speech Only A Community Organizer Could Give

March 9, 2015
President Obama speaking at the Edmund Pettus Bridge (credit: Bill Frakes/AP)

President Obama speaking at the Edmund Pettus Bridge (credit: Bill Frakes/AP)

Sarah Palin’s mockery of Barack Obama’s brief community organizing career during her acceptance speech at the 2008 Republican national convention was typical of how many conservatives treated his experience then, and of how they treat it now:

“I was mayor of my hometown. And since our opponents in this presidential election seem to look down on that experience, let me explain to them what the job involved.  I guess — I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities.” (emphasis added)

As a result, many conservatives struggling to come to terms with President Obama’s eloquent, fiery, powerful speech delivered in Selma on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday are at a disadvantage.  Because they don’t respect organizing, they haven’t bothered to learn what a community organizer does.  More importantly, they don’t know how a community organizer thinks.

Here’s just one example from Saturday’s speech of Obama as Community-Organizer-in-Chief.

After, in quick succession, criticizing the Supreme Court for weakening the Voting Rights Act, praising Presidents Reagan and Bush for signing extensions of the Voting Rights Act when they were in office, calling on the 100 members of Congress before him in the assembled crowd to “go back to Washington, and gather four hundred more, and together, pledge to make it their mission to restore the law this year“, Obama addressed all US citizens on our collective responsibility as voters.  Here’s the paragraph as prepared for delivery:

“Of course, our democracy is not the task of Congress alone, or the courts alone, or the President alone. If every new voter suppression law was struck down today, we’d still have one of the lowest voting rates among free peoples. Fifty years ago, registering to vote here in Selma and much of the South meant guessing the number of jellybeans in a jar or bubbles on a bar of soap. It meant risking your dignity, and sometimes, your life. What is our excuse today for not voting? How do we so casually discard the right for which so many fought? How do we so fully give away our power, our voice, in shaping America’s future?”

The audience applauds, Obama pauses, and then ad-libs for emphasis, “We give away our power!“.  (At 31:57 of the linked video.) More applause follows.

Now, that’s a line the 20-something Barack Obama heard on the first full day of a week-long leadership training he attended when he was an aspiring community organizer back in the 1980s.  “We give away our power more often than it’s taken from us.”  It’s one of the foundational lessons taught in networks of community organizations all across the United States and around the world.  Power, the ability to act, has two primary sources:  organized people and organized money.  By accepting the “world as it is”, we give away our power to help shape the “world as it should be”.  Thirty years later, these organizing “habits of mind” still shape how Barack Obama does his job.

Perhaps President Obama’s political opponents would have been wiser to spend more time over the past several years fearing his community organizing background, rather than mocking it.  Because his speech in Selma suggests what place they ultimately will have in American history (or at least, his version of American history):  none.

There’s no Sheriff Jim Clark or Gov. George Wallace in Obama’s retelling of the confrontation on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday.  There’s no shout-out to the anti-federalists who opposed adoption of the Constitution…or the men who opposed women’s suffrage, or the straights who oppose equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians.  In Obama’s retelling, the Berlin Wall didn’t fall because Ronald Reagan gave a speech; it fell because young people in eastern Europe were inspired by the actions in Selma of young people like John Lewis and Diane Nash.

It’s not unlike the Biblical telling of the story of Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives in the first chapter of Exodus who disobey Pharaoh’s order to kill newborn boys.  (Another story used by community organizers to teach about power, organizing and change.)  The author of Exodus preserves their names, but is completely uninterested in the king’s name (which is not recorded).

As liberal commentator Jonathan Chait tweeted on Saturday:

This is American history told from the bottom up. It’s a history of high ideals (the “world as it should be”) never fully realized (the “world as it is”).  It’s a history made by leaders and organizers who understand the timeless wisdom of Frederick Douglass:

“If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
It’s history taught by a community organizer.

From → History, Politics

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