Among its other accomplishments, the presidency of Barack Obama—you do remember it?—featured an unmistakable expansion of public appreciation for African-American history. This was especially true as his time remaining in the White House dwindled away: From the opening of the Smithsonian’s Museum of African-American History and Culture to the designation of a site in South Carolina as the nation’s first national park devoted to Reconstruction, the Obama presidency ended with considerable emphasis on how the nation conceives of African-American history in public spaces. In many ways, and despite whatever uncertainties lie ahead, Obama’s attempts to memorialize more of the African-American experience enhanced the meaning of what it means to be an American.
The idea that the United States has a “civil religion,” an argument first put forward by sociologist Robert Bellah in 1967, suggests that all Americans possess certain national touchstones for collective memory. We have a shared understanding of the importance of certain events, such as the battles of the American Revolution and the Civil War. This is crafted by public memory—history not necessarily as it is written by historians, but more generally, the ways in which the public remembers the past in popular culture and media. During Obama’s presidency, America’s civil religion expanded to include moments from the civil-rights struggle and other protest movements, all of which enhanced and enlarged the definition of who counts as an American. In a rapidly diversifying country, the importance of this achievement cannot be underestimated.
From his early entry into public discourse, which can be traced to the publication of his memoir, Dreams From My Father, Obama has written and spoken extensively of the importance of African-American history—both to himself and to the nation. Indeed, Obama wrote in that book about the importance writers such as James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Malcolm X had on the development of his own identity. As president, Obama continued his engagement with the black historical and literary tradition by using the power of the presidency to create landmarks to the African-American experience, thereby forever shaping public memory and America’s civic religion.
His second inaugural address, in 2013, for example, argued for the need to memorialize moments in African-American history as part of a larger national narrative. His famous line about “Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall” was an attempt to broaden the idea of who is remembered in American memory. In both the realm of presidential rhetoric and physical spaces, Obama worked time and again to broaden the ideas of what is memorialized, of who counts as an American.
His participation at the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Selma voting-rights march is another example of how the president used the power of the presidency to memorialize a national event. It would be easy to assume that anyone occupying the White House in 2015 would have participated in the Selma march. However, the symbolism of the first African-American president speaking to the power of the ballot—especially during a time of renewed voter suppression across the nation—could not be missed. In his speech, the president compared the site of Selma to other important places in American history: “As John [Lewis] noted, there are places and moments in America where this nation’s destiny has been decided. Many are sites of war—Concord and Lexington, Appomattox. Gettysburg. Others are sites that symbolize the daring of America’s character—Independence Hall and Seneca Falls, Kitty Hawk and Cape Canaveral.”