This essay is adapted from Thomas J. Sugrue’s Not Even Past: Barack Obama and the Burden of Race, out in June from Princeton University Press. Copyright © 2010 by Princeton University Press. Printed by permission.
"Rosa sat so Martin could walk/Martin walked so Obama could run/Obama is running so our children can fly!" Circulated widely during the last weeks of the 2008 presidential election, this short piece of verse encapsulates the relationship of Barack Obama to collective memories of the civil rights movement. It is a story of debt: Obama owes his success to the past generation of civil rights protesters. It is a story of redemption: Obama’s political career realizes their dream that skin color be no longer a bar to ambition. And it is a story of hope and promise: Obama’s victory will open up extraordinary opportunities to the next generation. The poem is powerful because it unself-consciously provides Obama with a political genealogy in the most important social movement of the twentieth century and offers a teleological view of America on an inexorable path of progress.
Obama himself emphasized his place in the unfolding history of civil rights at key moments during his long presidential campaign, most notably in one of the more extraordinary speeches of his career, in Selma, Alabama, on March 4, 2007, before a mostly black audience at an event commemorating the city’s voting rights march of 1965. Joining Obama were Congressman John Lewis; C.T. Vivian, a minister and close aide to the Reverend King; and Artur Davis, a young, black Harvard Law graduate and a Democratic rising star who hoped to be one of the first African-Americans elected to statewide office in Alabama since Reconstruction.
It was one of Obama’s most moving speeches, a virtuosic performance, delivered in the sonorous tones of someone who had learned the art of rhetoric from the pulpit of the black church. Obama seemed to be channeling King himself in his cadence, his mix of exhortation and analysis and his easy use of biblical imagery. The speech culminated in an extended allusion to the book of Exodus. "So I just want to talk a little about Moses and Aaron and Joshua, because we are in the presence today of a lot of Moseses. We’re in the presence today of giants whose shoulders we stand on, people who battled, not just on behalf of African-Americans but on behalf of all of America; that battled for America’s soul, that shed blood…. Like Moses, they challenged Pharaoh, the princes, powers who said that some are atop and others are at the bottom, and that’s how it’s always going to be." He traced his own lineage to their struggle. "It is because they marched that I got the kind of education I got, a law degree, a seat in the Illinois Senate and ultimately in the United States Senate." Ultimately the story was one of liberation from bondage. "The previous generation, the Moses Generation, pointed the way. They took us 90 percent of the way there. We still got that 10 percent in order to cross over to the other side." Obama simultaneously paid respect to the elders of the civil rights struggle, situated his career as their legacy and offered a story of redemption. For those Americans—especially white Americans—who believed that the struggle for racial equality was nearly finished, these words were a balm.
If the struggle was 90 percent complete, what remained to be done? Raising his voice, Obama exhorted the "Joshua Generation" to remember the freedom struggle of the 1960s, to exhibit "the sense of moral clarity and purpose" of those who came before them and, in a riff familiar to black churchgoers but surprising to most white commentators, called for parental responsibility, criticizing "daddies not acting like daddies" and exhorting a fictional, feckless "cousin Pookie" to "get off the couch and register some folks and go to the polls." At the core of the speech was Obama’s vision of the civil rights struggle as one of individual initiative and self-transformation. "If you want to change the world," Obama solemnly intoned, "the change has to happen with you first, and that is something that the greatest and most honorable of generations has taught us." He reinforced the profoundly individualistic understanding of the freedom struggle and its challenge to hearts and minds.