Obama Gives Another Greatest Speech Ever, This Time In Selma

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

Obama’s speech at Selma was, of course, great (transcript, as delivered). But then Obama’s speeches always are, aren’t they? However, I’m not here to speak of soaring rhetoric.

Nor I will not speak of Obama’s miserable performance (“depraved indifference“) in delivering concrete material benefits to his putative constituency of the black community, an important component for his succesfully achieved policy goal of outdoing Bush for the redistribution of wealth, upward.

Nor will I speak of the malign presence of that avatar of the Black misleadership class, Al Sharpton, at Obama’s shoulder (and the concomitant absence, so far as I know, of any of today’s organizers and protesters).

Unfortunately, I’m a bit pressed temporally, so I won’t be able to get out the Magic Markers for this one. Instead, I want to put the speech into its political context, and then point to a few of Obama’s more important omissions and evasions.

None of this should be construed as a dismissal of the importance of the civil rights struggle, past and present. As Faulkner said, “The past is not dead; it is not even past,” and this was amply born out by a billboard, within sight of the Edmund Pettus bridge where Obama gave the speech, honoring KKK founder Nathan Bedford Forrest (motto: “Keep the skeer on ’em.” Indeed). What follows relies heavily on Ferguson activist @BrownBlaze, who tweeted the speech with a suitably jaundiced eye.

Political Context

As NC readers know, the Democrats held a post mortem for the 2014 mid-terms debacle. Detail here, but this was one key policy recommendation:

The report also said the party should develop a more aggressive legislative and legal strategy to push back on Republican efforts that some view as making voting more difficult. In the name of fighting alleged voter fraud, Republicans have required identification to vote and in some cases put what Democrats view as unfair limits on what counts as ID.

Obama says:

[OBAMA:] How can that be? The Voting Rights Act was one of the crowning achievements of our democracy, the result of Republican and Democratic efforts. (Applause.) President Reagan signed its renewal when he was in office. President George W. Bush signed its renewal when he was in office. (Applause.) One hundred members of Congress have come here today to honor people who were willing to die for the right to protect it. If we want to honor this day, let that hundred go back to Washington and gather four hundred more, and together, pledge to make it their mission to restore that law this year. That’s how we honor those on this bridge. (Applause.)

So, Obama is really translating a Democratic National Committee task force bullet point into soaring rhetoric. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, and I’m all for making it as easy as possible to vote; I’m just pointing out that Obama’s speech serves a partisan purpose.)

Anyhow, what Obama has to say is all well and good, but it’s about 15 years too late. Remember the Florida felons list? That’s the list two of Jebbie’s Secretaries of State used to purge almost 60,000 mostly Black and mostly Democratic voters from the rolls based on bad data. Of course, what with George W. and Laura Bush actually marching in Selma, and Jebbie running for President himself, it would have been churlish for Obama to mention this. Thing is, the Democrats have only started serious work protecting people’s right to vote now? WTF? The only explanation I can think of is that Democrats hate their own base so much that trying to expand it is literally their last choice, the option they’ll choose only when all else has failed.

Omissions and evasions

1) Women and Girls

Obama said:

[OBAMA:] Together, we can address unfair sentencing and overcrowded prisons, and the stunted circumstances that rob too many boys of the chance to become men, and rob the nation of too many men who could be good dads, and good workers, and good neighbors. (Applause.)

“Boys” but, apparently, not “girls.” “Men,” but not (Tanisha Anderson) “women”; “dads” but not (Miriam Carey) “moms”.[1]


Obama said:

[OBAMA:] … John Lewis, Joseph Lowery, Hosea Williams, Amelia Boynton, Diane Nash, Ralph Abernathy, C.T. Vivian, Andrew Young, Fred Shuttlesworth, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and so many others ….

(This passage is discussed at [2] as well.) I’m not seeing Bayard Rustin in that list… Just like the movie. That seems odd:

A mentor to a young King, Rustin advised him on the use of nonviolent resistance. He helped organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. He was in the forefront with Ella Baker in 1957 along with King in organizing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He participated in the Freedom Rides of the early 60s. Rustin also was the one who spearheaded the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where King gave his renowned “I Have A Dream” speech. In fact, Rustin was the executive director of the historic march.

Would Obama not have mentioned Rustin because Rustin was gay?

Obama also said:

“We are capable of bearing a great burden,” James Baldwin once wrote, “once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is.”

Would it really have been too much for Obama to mention that Baldwin was gay?

3) The Changing Parameters of Protest

Ronald J. Krotoszynski Jr. asks in the Los Angeles Times:

Could a march like Selma happen today?

To answer, we need to understand the historical background:

The 52-mile march down U.S. Highway 80 on March 21-25 required more than determination; it required a court order.

After a four-day hearing, in a groundbreaking ruling [U.S. District Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr.] held that the march could proceed. The protest march on Bloody Sunday, he wrote, represented the exercise of the rights of assembly, petition and speech. “It seems basic to our constitutional principles that the extent of the right to assemble, demonstrate, and march peaceably along the highways and streets in an orderly manner should be commensurate with the enormity of the wrongs that are being protested and petitioned against,” he reasoned. “This is particularly true when the usual, basic and constitutionally-provided means of protesting in our American way — voting — have been deprived.”

And sadly, the answer is “no.”

Today, it would be impossible to obtain a federal court order permitting a five-day protest march on a 52-mile stretch of a major U.S. highway. Under contemporary legal doctrine, the Selma protests would have ended March 8, 1965.

And so it’s richly ironic that Obama — who, as President, orchestrated a 17-city paramilitary crackdown of the Occupy protests — is celebrating an event that his administration’s policies would prevent, court order or not.

4) Slaves as Labor, not Slaves as Cargo

Obama said:

We’re the immigrants who stowed away on ships to reach these shores, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free …. That’s how we came to be. (Applause.)

We’re the slaves who built the White House and the economy of the South.

Here we have a subtle omission, but perhaps the most important in the speech: Obama speaks of slave labor, but omits the Middle Passage.

Obviously, this omits the genocidal aspect of the slave trade, since millions died on the slave ships. Less obviously, but much more critically, it enables Obama to say “built…. the economy of the South” with a straight face (presumably; I wasn’t there to see if he winked). Because slavery didn’t just build the economy of the South; it built the economy of the entire United States. “Southern slaves on Yankee bottoms, as the saying goes; meaning (as Dark Bargain: Slavery, Profits, and the Struggle for the Constitution shows us; the Constitutional sausage was made by South slaveholders and Yankee shipping interests in their own mutual interests. So, hanging slavery on the South only is just wrong. Pre-Civil War Manhattan depended on the slave trade itself; on slave-grown cotton for manufacturing; Manhattan was also a center of cotton trading and finance.[3] All this is airbrushed away in Obama’s formulation. And omitting the Middle Passage is especially egregious because Obama does mention “immigrants who stowed away on ships.” So why not mention slaves who were brought here, chained, on ships, and then sold?

5) Reparations

And speaking of “building the economy” of the slave power:

Too easy, right? You’d think that an article this cogent (Ta-Nahesi Coates, “The Case for Reparations”) would at least merit one of Obama’s casual dismissals.[2]

6) American Exceptionalism

Obama said:

That’s what it means to love[4] America. That’s what it means to believe in America. That’s what it means when we say America is exceptional.

For we were born of change. We broke the old aristocracies, declaring ourselves entitled not by bloodline, but endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights. We secure our rights and responsibilities through a system of self-government, of and by and for the people. That’s why we argue and fight with so much passion and conviction — because we know our efforts matter. We know America is what we make of it.

Look at our history.

I know we’re dealing with America’s civic religion, here, but this formulation, too, is false to history, or at least not true in the way that Obama wishes it to be. From a review of James McPherson’s ‘The War That Forged a Nation:

As McPherson makes clear, one obvious way the United States stands out is that while many other countries also abolished slavery in the 19th century, we were one of the last, and only we required a war that killed 750,000 people to do so.

Another distinction: “civil wars tend to attract foreign intervention.” McPherson notes that, thanks in large measure to Lincoln’s deft diplomacy, ours “proved an exception” to that rule.

Our Civil War also wrought unique transformational effects on the United States. It didn’t just save the Union and free the slaves; it also freed entrepreneurial capitalism.

In antebellum America, McPherson writes, “two distinct socioeconomic and cultural systems competed for dominance”: free-labor capitalism in the North and slave-based plantation agriculture in the South. The North’s triumph meant that the former model would prevail, leading to the “explosive growth of industrial capitalism” in post-Civil War America, which in a very real sense “forged the framework of modern America.”

This, he further observes, “was not an unmixed blessing.” While wealth grew enormously, “Labor strife and exploitation of workers became endemic” as well.

Indeed. And as I pointed out in the beginning, the process of wealth extraction has, in another bitter irony, only been accelerated under Obama.


From Obama’s peroration:

[OBAMA:] Because Selma shows us that America is not the project of any one person. Because the single-most powerful word in our democracy is the word “We.” “We The People.” “We Shall Overcome.” “Yes We Can.” [Oh, puh-leeze. What a tell.] (Applause.) That word is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone. Oh, what a glorious task we are given, to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.

In the punchline of the old joke, “Whaddaya mean, we?” Not, apparently, girls or women (unless their names are already in the history books). Not, apparently, LBGTQ people. Not, apparently, people who support reparations for slavery. Certainly not the “free labor” of the victorious North, then or now. And apparently “we” are no longer “the South,” which is made to appear solely responsible for this great evil. And the profits from the slave trade, who made them, and where they went, are airbrushed from the story entirely.

Still, it was a great speech. They always are.


[1] To be fair, we also have these passages:

And because of men and women like John Lewis, Joseph Lowery, Hosea Williams, Amelia Boynton, Diane Nash, Ralph Abernathy, C.T. Vivian, Andrew Young, Fred Shuttlesworth, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and so many others,

And this:

We are Sojourner Truth and Fannie Lou Hamer, women who could do as much as any man and then some. And we’re Susan B. Anthony, who shook the system until the law reflected that truth. That is our character.

All well and good, but suggesting either that (1) only women who make their names in the movement, unlike Miriam Carey or Tanisha Anderson, are worthy of mention, or (2) Obama’s speechwriters did a piss poor job of editing beyond their boilerplate, and/or (3) Obama can’t improvise worth a darn; how hard would it have been to improvise “girls and boys”? The transcript is “as delivered,” so he didn’t.

[2] I’m not sure I endorse the concept, but so far as I can tell, the bottom line for reparations isn’t anything like, say, the F-35 boondoggle.

[3] Finance was essential to the slave trade from the beginning. On the voyage to Guinea, the slavers didn’t put chests of gold in their holds and then haul them out when it came time to buy slaves; no, the whole matter was settled by an exchange of notes held back in financial centers like Liverpool. And one the voyage across the Atlantic to the slave markets, the slaves were insured, again by the financial centers. Turner’s famous painting The Slave Ship depicts a real historical incident where slaves were thrown overboard for the insurance money (since the slaveship captain had treated them so poorly they were damaged goods).


This, too, is airbrushed away in Obama’s formulation. One might wonder if he has some motive for protecting the financial centers.

[4] Best antidote to rhetoric like this, from (of all people) Agatha Christie in Dumb Witness:

I love Theresa Arundell and I love her for what she is and not for any imagined qualities.

“[N]ot for any imagined qualities….”

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. ambrit

    I was tickled to see that Coates used a photograph of U. S. Grant as his Twitter avatar.
    As always, Obama is good at speechifying, and bad in action. It’s Genuine Third Way for us next election cycle.

  2. Demeter

    For a moment, when I read the title of this piece, I thought the BOG
    (Barack Obama Group on Democratic Underground)
    (not to be confused with the Borg, although “you MUST be assimilated” would make a good slogan for them)
    had taken over NC. Whew!

    Just once, before I die, I would like to vote for a President worth voting for….so far, Jimmy Carter is the closest, and he really messed up the New World Order timeline, didn’t he?

      1. ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®©

        I voted for Jill Stein in 2012, and may well do so again in 2016.

        That said, this criticism I’ve seen of the U.S. Greens seems valid:

        They show up every four years for a vanity Presidential run. There is little to no effort expended building a viable party from the ground up in between.

        1. Vatch

          Your criticism has some validity. But it takes both people and money to build a viable national political party. If you have some spare time, and aren’t overly introverted, volunteer to help your state’s Green Party. If you don’t have much time, or you’re uncomfortable meeting people or cold calling them, but you have some spare cash, then after you’ve donated to Naked Capitalism, donate something to your state’s Green Party.

        2. CB

          Absolutely. The Greens have an interesting history, somewhat the same as the Working Families Party: a lot of wrong choices. Self-sabotage, short form. The WFP got further in the electoral process, but they’re pretty much fried now. Made themselves dog food for a pure politician with no other agenda than his own. Think long and hard about “running with the big dogs,” they’ll pull you down and tear you apart just for the practice.

        3. cassiodorus

          Nonsense. The point of running Presidential candidates is 1) to help with ballot status efforts and 2) to qualify for FEC funding. The Green Party does local organizing as well, albeit with a base of too few communities.

  3. Jack Skwat

    I suppose when you speak to the masses, ya gotsta goes into the archive and get out the “mass appeal” scripts. Sad to say, but intellectuals weren’t lining up on the Pettus bridge to hear Oyawna speechify. Obama wants to be “everyman;” unfortunately, one of them was Jubilation T. Cornpone. Think the next “exceptional” Oyawna tome will be along the lines of a hymnal.

  4. Mike

    I, for one, am sorry for the snarky tone of this article. I am almost overwhelmed by pride in my country for the distance it has come since Bloody Sunday. I remember those days. I remember the hate and I remember the fear by poor, uneducated whites, that they would no longer have a group of people to look down upon.

    I remember in 1972 that in east Texas there were still “White” and “Colored” water fountains and restrooms in the County Courthouse. I remember of being in an east Texas cafe and having a black man being told that he had to eat in the kitchen.*

    I am proud that I can walk through the south today and see mixed race couple walking down the street with their children, openly and without fear.

    I am proud that we have elected an African American for President. Times like this are an opportunity to celebrate how far our nation has come, and to reflect upon how far we have to go.

    It is with tears in my eyes that I feel that so many of those lessons we started learning so many years ago are being forgotten because of petty partisan politics. What you think of Obama’s successes or failures, and there are many of both, try to remember those days of fifty years ago for at least a few hours or days, and be proud of your country.

    * Amid threats from the local powers that be (or were) he ate with me, instead.

    1. mad as hell.

      I am glad you keep calling him out Lambert and that you get below the surface! So many, many don’t.

    2. ambrit

      True enough, but, as I can remember when Miami Beach still had a curfew for coloureds, as the more ‘enlightened’ whites referred to Nieblanks, which curfew lasted until the late 1960’s, the spirit of racism is an eternal scourge in human relations. It must be combatted every day. What I believe makes NC readers cynical about Obama and his posturings is exactly that; they are purely political posturings. The great beauty of corruption is that it is equal opportunity. Sad to say, but if Obama is the poster child for the multiracial New Age, then it is yet again a case of; “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.”

    3. cassiodorus

      Obama’s Presidency coincides with the greatest decrease in aggregate Black net worth since the Great Depression of 1929-1932.

      Does reflecting upon that fact count as part of our “opportunity to celebrate how far our nation has come, and to reflect upon how far we have to go”?

      1. jgordon

        The powers that be have become both more subtle and more efficient at marginalizing and extracting wealth from minorities–with Obama as the current figurehead of the process. I suppose it’s no longer amazing to me that with the right optics will gladly and self-righteously participate in their own destruction. The oligarchs must be thrilled with such an endlessly repeatable plan. Next into the abattoir seems to be women, who will eagerly race to embrace Hillary Clinton. Because apparently people never learn.

    4. Jackrabbit

      I, for one, am PROUD of the snarky tone of this article. It springs from the best progressive traditions of our country. A living tradition that has, in recent times, been maligned, marginalized, or misused for political gain by the likes of Obama.

      Naked Capitalism does a great service to our nation by looking at the world with a critical eye. And as much as some want desperately to believe the pervasive propaganda, there is much to criticize. Feckless politicans, rampant crony corruption, loss of civil liberties, extreme inequality, a belligerant and misguided foreign policy, and more.

      It almost feels that we have learned nothing, as hard-won reforms are slyly walked back via co-option (War on Terr0r!, austerity with tax breaks for the rich, etc.), redefinition (neo-whatever, and slight-of-hand (exceptionalism). Those who remember the blind deference to authority, militarism, and injustices that led to the 60’s protest movements should be particularly appalled.


      H O P

    5. optimader

      What you think of Obama’s successes or failures, and there are many of both,

      If you read snark, it is about BHO not Civil Rights vis a vie the Selma place in history.
      The way I see it, BHO’s “many Successes” are almost exclusively in the Failure column for our Country, The Citizens at large and all the rest of the global inhabitants his policies have fkd over.
      Should BHO not be called out on his lies, deceit and immoral behavior because he is biracial? IMO that is in and of itself racist.

    6. Ian

      I have no time for identity politics and if I did, I’d say that Obama is one of the biggest betrayals of and disgraces of Black people. Nd that he has clearly shown that hypocrisy, graft and what is tantamount to class warfare (which a very significant portion of the populace that that warfare is being waged on is black) is not just primarly the domain of rich white people, but now a very powerful and influential Black man named Obama that rose to power on hypocrisy, graft and what is tantamount to class warfare.

    7. Lambert Strether Post author

      I think you have a low threshold for snark. That said, I think you’re confusing all the progress in your first three paragraphs — which is down to the efforts of millions, and the civil rights movement, and not just one political party — with a President elected in 2008.

      But I want to focus on this sentence:

      I am proud that we have elected an African American for President.

      Thing is, you can swap in other identities there. Suppose we had elected Hillary in 2008:

      I am proud that we have elected a woman for President.

      And you would be, right? So what we’re really looking at this this statement:

      I am proud that we have elected a ______ for President.

      Where “_____” stands for one of several identities: Black, female, hispanic, gay.

      But you need to consider the trade-off you’re making if that’s your number one litmus test for a successful Presidency is symbolic. Look at the links early in the post, and you’ll see that on policy, Obama’s been bad for the country (if reining in the oligarchy is your main concern) and bad for the black community, too, if concrete material benefits — like jobs — are your concern.

      Suppose we trade “pride in” for policy for another 8 years (a woman) and then another 8 years (a Hispanic) and then another 8 years (a gay). If they all do as much damage as Obama has, that’s a lot of damage. So I vote on policy. YMMY, and apparently does.

      1. MLS

        Your point is well-articulated, Lambert. For the many of us who disagreed with Obama’s policies and ideas from day 1, it was almost comical that the response from his supporters was to shout “racist!”. Sadly, that remains the fallback for far too many people that can’t take the trouble to think critically for a second and recognize that 1) Yes Virginia, there are still plenty of racists out there, but 2) not everyone who disagrees with a black person is inherently racist. Sometimes it’s because the ideas are just, well, bad.

    1. luana waithe

      Haters~~~~~still hating over the fact that a Biracial Man is living in your large White House with his beautiful,
      LOVE OBAMA~~~~
      Hate on brothers and sisters~~~~~

          1. optimader

            lol that..
            Luana, that’s pathetic who’s the racist here? Are being “biracial” and having “a beautiful family” the two enduring BHO Admin accomplishments you hang your hat on?
            Pathetically low expectations.

          2. Llewelyn Moss

            Daily Kos has been overrun with Obots. Literally cult-ish now. Disagree with anything their Obama Deity does and you are quickly cast as a racist. And when Obama leaves in 2016, the last Obot should shut the lights out on his way out because there won’t be anyone left.

              1. CB

                Never thought of them that way. I do know some better intentioned ones. We don’t discuss obysmal.

            1. Vince in MN

              They will merely morph into Hillarybots (or whatever new “saviour” version Corporate Party 2 comes up with), because Democrat.

      1. cassiodorus

        As I suggested in the piece on “What if Obama weren’t a Leftist”:


        If we were to put an end to the notion that Obama is a leftist, the political battlefield might appear to be over a different set of concepts than those which promote the idea of “Right versus Left.” Rather, we might see, as did the UK social thinker Anthony Giddens in his book Beyond Right and Left, that in this era the “Left” has turned defensive, and thus we might have a notion that political life, here in the US especially, has become about different versions of preservation of the status quo, through appeals to differing historical notions of what America is about.

        In this regard, it should be fairly easy for the lovers of Obama to defend his corporate conservatism against the hateful anti-public conservatism of the Republican Right. It would also be a far more honest pitch than the one they’re making now, in which Obama feels obliged to dress himself up in the history of the civil rights movement in order to keep his followers in “love.”

      2. Synoia

        What does Barak Obama know of the black experience in the US (I personally know little)?

        He is not from that community, did not grow up in a state with a black community and attended very expensive, mostly white, schools and colleges.

        I’m still waiting for some black leader, an African American, in Chicago come forward and explain what a great job the young Barak Obama did for some people or a Neighborhood, as a community organizer.

      3. different clue

        Are you a fool, or a tool, or possibly both?

        Do mirrors crack with laughter when you walk by?

  5. Jim Haygood

    ‘That’s what it means when we say America is exceptional.’ — B. H. Obama

    John Pilger, with his usual take-no-prisoners narrative, demolishes Obama the Exceptional:

    The common thread in fascism, past and present, is mass murder. Today, the world’s greatest single campaign of terror entails the execution of entire families, guests at weddings, mourners at funerals. These are Obama’s victims.

    Uniting fascism old and new is the cult of superiority. “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fibre of my being,” said Obama, evoking declarations of national fetishism from the 1930s. As the historian Alfred W. McCoy has pointed out, it was the Hitler devotee, Carl Schmitt, who said, “The sovereign is he who decides the exception.” This sums up Americanism, the world’s dominant ideology.

    Now cinema audiences are invited to wring their hands at the “tragedy” of American psychopaths having to kill people in distant places – just as the President himself kills them.


    Lyndon Johnson’s administration despised Martin Luther King for his opposition to the Vietnam War.

    If Obama the Exceptional had a black critic as effective as King, his critic probably would meet the same fate.

    1. timbers

      “The United States is and will remain the one indispensable nation in the world.”


      ‘That’s what it means when we say America is exceptional.’ — B. H. Obama

      I prefer:

      “Everywhere the U.S. goes turns into Iraq or Libya.” – Vladimir Putin.

      Or Ukraine. Or Afghanistan. Or Yemen. Or Syria. Or Somalia. Many more can be added no doubt.

      Obama is murderous thug who assassinates America children, bombs pregnant woman, children, entire villages, weddings, first responders. There is nothing to admire in him except the deceit and the horror of how evil he is.

      IMO, of course.

      1. OpenThePodBayDoorsHAL

        Thank you.
        All these mellifluous emittances from our Bloviator-in-Chief are completely devoid of any meaning, the only things that are meaningful are his actions.
        Every Tuesday when he sits down to commit illegal undeclared acts of war with his pre-crime drone murder program he loses any credence for his other actions (not that there were any worthy of it). It’s a war crime, plain and simple, and he is a war criminal. Hitler was nice to his dogs but that doesn’t mean he is off the hook for his ovens.
        Have they considered what will happen when China or Russia get it in their heads to use intercontinental robot bombs to kill people they believe might commit a crime in the future who might happen to be located in Nashville or El Paso? Oh, no, China or Russia would never do that, because they realize it would represent an act of war.
        Staged photo ops like Selma are just The Great Bloviator masturbating in front of a mirror, with his acolytes fawning over every stroke. Although I did notice quite a few blank stares in the audience…even they are starting to realize the rhetoric has absolutely no relation to the reality.

    2. neo-realist

      If Obama the Exceptional had a black critic as effective as King, his critic probably would meet the same fate.

      Problem is, Glen Ford doesn’t have a column in the NY Times or the Washington Post. Sometimes, a critic doesn’t have to meet a fate as long as TPTB know that the critic’s voice isn’t read by a lot of people compared to mainstream media.

  6. TarheelDem

    Your on-point critique of the speech and the Presidency notwithstanding, there are certain obvious “predictable events in US Presidencies” to notice about the Selma speech.

    1. The “great speeches”, of which this is another, are the framework on which a certain form of writing of the history of a Presidency is presented. Wilson’s “Fourteen Points”, Roosevelt’s “We Have Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself” and “Four Freedoms”, Kennedy’s Inaugural. Obama’s speeches on civil rights and race relations will of necessity be the historian’s frame for the first black President. Expect to see quotes from these speeches in school textbooks in 15 years.

    2. In terms of historical moment, this speech is situationally similar to that of Gettysburg. It is a memorial and commemoration after a time of a major battle that changed the tide of events. You need only talk for a while with the people most trying to roll the clock back to understand how profoundly it changed the local situation. And those people feel that they have now successfully delegitimized the authority of the first black President to the point that a state supreme court justice can defy a federal court order in the name of states rights. The task of this speech is reassert federal authority and the authority of the President to speak on behalf of all citizens of the United States. Just as Lincoln in 1863 was boldly speaking on behalf of all the citizens of the United States (including in prospect a defeated Confederacy) at a time at which the results of the war had just turned. If Obama wins his bet, this speech will be seen as historic; if Justice Roy Moore wins his bet, the triumph of states rights will overwhelm the Selma commemoration.

    3. The core of this speech is the proper relationship between church and state. This theme is played in low key so as not to wave red flags before the “guardians of the true American Christianity” who had a hissy fit over President Obama’s presence at the National Prayer Breakfast. But it is there, and it depends on reciting the story about how a small group of black churches in the South undid de jure segregation with a movement that captured the public eye for only 10 years but extended back to at least the period of the establishment of de jure segregation in the 1890s. The President recites the biblical frame that the leaders of that movement put on what they were doing and how they were caring for the doubts and fears of the people who were marching forth and risking themselves in a strategy of nonviolent active civil disobedience in an anxious and hair-trigger repressive society. This in the face of a reactive Christian movement that wants the ability to pick and choose what laws they will and won’t obey relative to acknowledging equal rights without the sanctions of the states falling on them–a movement that seeks the right to discriminate as a constitutional guarantee. Expect howls over this part of the President’s speech.

    President Obama spoke as President (the papal work for this type of speech is “ex cathedra”) in a state in which over half of the voters think that he is illegitimate to be President because of the place of his birth. He celebrated the Edmund Pettus Bridge in front of these people and on their state’s “soil” as if it were a new Gettysburg commemoration. It had two political purposes: reclaim public support for voting rights guarantees; provide another set of chapter headings for historians of his Presidency. Both of those are sources of power, no matter how flimsy, that a lame duck can hold over against Congress. Unlike the case of Presidents before Clinton, the Wall Street media with now begin to push back on even these small rhetorical efforts.

    1. optimader

      Obama’s speeches on civil rights and race relations will of necessity be the historian’s frame for the first black President

      I thought Bill Clinton was the first “black president”?

      1. Chrstopher Dale Rogers

        One of the best “one liners” on NC for ages, really LoL’ed on your comment – finished off a good post by Lambert and post by posters to a wonderful degree – suffice to say, Obama is a crass hypocrite and owes the US African American community a bloody large apology – its a disgrace he tarnishes MLK and Selma.

        1. winstonsmith

          Not to take away from your enjoyment of optimader’s remark, but it’s interesting to note that the line goes back to Toni Morrison:

          Clinton drew strong support from the African American community and made improving race relations a major theme of his presidency. In 1998, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison called Clinton “the first Black president”, saying, “Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas”. Noting that Clinton’s sex life was scrutinized more than his career accomplishments, Morrison compared this to the stereotyping and double standards that blacks typically endure.

          Toni Morrison is a cheap date. She could have just as well mentioned the gift for commodities trading shared by Mrs. Clinton and Eddie Murphy (in Trading Places).

  7. sd

    We broke the old aristocracies, declaring ourselves entitled not by bloodline, but endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights. We secure our rights and responsibilities through a system of self-government, of and by and for the people.

    The aristocracies are back. We have Clinton vs Bush coming soon to an election near you. Washington DC is today’s Versailles. Our so called self government is corrupted by corporate interests who now own the politicians and the political process. Our government is not of and by and for the people as the orchestrated lack of fraud prosecutions very very clearly attests when contrasted to the will that resulted in mass arrests on Occupy Wall Street.

    Another puff puff puff speech. Visionary words that change absolutely nothing as they conveniently airbrush out what’s really going on.

    1. Optimader

      Could easily be 2015 DC, just a differnt time, place and oligarchy
      Paris, 1761. Brilliant young Parisian police commissioner Nicolas Le Floch works under Monsieur de Sartine, the Royal Lieutenant General of Police. Louis XV’s kingdom is plagued by conspiracies and murders. With the help of his faithful subordinate Bourdeau, Nicolas solves mysterious disappearances and sorts out awkward scandals. From seedy taverns to the muffled hallways of Versailles, from brothels to the Châtelet prisons, he tracks and stakes out suspects, questions witnesses, gathers evidence, foils traps, and unveils plotters. Nicolas Le Floch plunges viewers into the mysteries of 18th Century Paris, a world teeming with crime, debauchery and theft. 2008-2013. In French with English subtitles.

  8. TedWa

    Obomba’s speech writer should have delivered that speech. To have a sociopath delivering a speech at this historical and important event denigrates the celebration of that event and brings dishonor to those that sacrificed everything to forward human rights with dignity. Would King have liked to have Obama deliver a speech there? My guess is he would have been appalled at the suggestion as those there should have been also. Pretty words do not come close to making up for his sell-out of blacks and all Americans. Did he lift a finger when the banks were foreclosing on black peoples homes at a much higher rate than whites (because they were the main targets of predatory lenders)? No. He chose to make the most vulnerable homeless. How anybody can listen to this man and believe a word he says is beyond me. He’s now making ready, with his trade agreements, to sell our national sovereignty to the highest bidder and turn us all into serfs.

  9. Jim in SC


    Thanks for posting this. I often feel like a voice crying in the wilderness when the topic is the true history of this country.

    In reference to Mike’s post above, re: ‘poor uneducated whites,’ James Agee published a book in 1941 complete with photos by Walker Evans called ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.’ It is based on eight weeks the two of them spent living with sharecroppers in Alabama in the summer of 1936. It’s been a long time since I’ve read it, but the historical gist, as I recall, is this: the ancestors of white sharecroppers were generally literate when they arrived in the United States from Scotland and Ireland. (The average person in Scotland at that time may have been better read than the average person living in the United States today, we learn from other sources.) These folks were the backbone of the American Revolution in the South, and were typically landowners, particularly as they were often awarded land seized from Tories after the Revolution. They sold their lowland landholdings to conglomerates of Northern money putting together plantations to grow cotton. They became subsistence farmers in the mountains, and ‘each generation became more ignorant than the one before.’ They were Jefferson’s yeomen farmers, around whom he hoped to build the Republic, and they lost that position and that possibility due to economic forces they could not have understood, despite their literacy. No one understood these forces at the time, and few understand them now.

    They would have been the natural free labor force had there been no slavery in the South. In a sense, the slaves beat them out, though not, of course, intentionally. I would be shocked if their descendants didn’t have resentment against African Americans. The cotton mills were built in the South after the Civil War to prevent a race war between the two groups [W. J. Cash: The Mind of the South]. They continue to engage in labor competition with African Americans and now Hispanics, too Country music is the sound of these folks coming down from the mountains over generations to find work that was denied them pre-Civil War.

    Nobody is interested in them, except to complain about them. Nobody will be giving Selma like speeches to commemorate the resumption of their civil rights: they were, of course, denied voting rights too, and were lynched frequently also, though not as frequently as African Americans. No one is interested in their history. They are ‘the Other.’

    The one person on the present political scene who shows an interest is Jim Webb, who is a potential dark horse Democratic candidate for President in 2016. Whoever wins, Republican or Democrat, is going to need their votes.

    1. James Levy

      Partly true, partly false. You imply that Northerners somehow “made” the plantation system–Robert Carter et al. would have been stunned to hear such a thing. That the Scotch-Irish yeoman were pushed out by the plantation aristocracy is true. That they in so many cases so calamitously deferred to their betters is also true. And the fact that the upcountry whites who didn’t support the Confederacy are today some of its biggest boosters is just pathetic. Lastly, to compare what happened to them to what happened to African slaves is just nuts. African-Americans would have gladly died for the chance at the freedom and status that poor whites enjoyed. Please don’t try the old “well my oppression was just as bad as yours” with African-Americans or Jews, because you’re not gonna win that contest.

      1. Jim in SC

        I didn’t mean to imply that there was an equivalence between what happened to African Americans and what happened to poor whites who became subsistence farmers in the mountains. African Americans have definitely had it worse than other groups in the US, though I think the way the British treated the Irish in the old country bears comparison.

        And Northerners couldn’t have been primarily responsible for the plantation system, though people don’t realize today how common it was for people to move from the North to the South. (However, I recall Agee used the term ‘Northern money.’) I read somewhere that, in the early 19th century, thirty percent of the white population of New Orleans was born in the North. Many graduates of Ivy League colleges were supported, if poorly, by the plantation system, where they worked as private tutors.

        But I think Lambert is correct to emphasize the Middle Passage and the practice of procuring slaves from Africa, a crime perpetrated in North America first by the British, and then by New England. Slave traders made seventeen times their money on each voyage. Half the slaves imported to the US came after July 4th 1776. Slaves were forty percent of the tonnage, and probably 99 percent of the value, arriving in the port of Salem, MA, in 1800. Like their predecessors, the British, New England turned against slavery with a vengeance after they’d made most of the money they could make at it. The change was sudden, and happened later than people think: Massachusetts elected a slave trader to the US Senate in 1820. The change in public attitudes came during the Great religious Awakening of the 1830s. Thirty years later, the regions were at war.

    2. craazyman

      The Bridge

      that sounds like The Waltons. I still remember that episode when John Boy’s dad drives the jalopy down to the unversity John Boy goes to (and he’s an English major I believe, I knew a few dudes like that, worshipping Faulkner like he was Jesus and the southern writers, Faulker is pretty damn good and others of them are too, I think read Tom Wolfe once and thought he was pretty good, although he could type, holy cow . . James Agee, I tried to read that book and I’ll try again. It seemed florid and dripping to me, overwrought with a determnination to lift a housefly into a bird, and a bird into the sky itself, at least that’s my instant memory, I suspect the tar shack crowd would jump to move to the burbs and turn on Nascar and drink a beer, heroes I don’t know, anyway, I need to give it a 2nd chance. Then there was dudes like the guy who wrote Deliverance, James Dickey, certainly a southern writer who once said something in him cringes when he sees a black man with a white woman, he was just being honest, it’s all tribe down to the bottom and there on the bottom is where soul begins, there was also Mark Twain, there’s not much to say about a Master like him, and there was a number of others I’ve never read and probably never will read. What else is there to know after a while, other than what’s in front of you and how to know what it is, first in your own mind and then in words that can convey something of it to somebody else. The story is the same almost every time, but the words change, that’s about it) and everybody stares with dripping scorn. That was U.Va. I went there! I can almost believe something like that could have happened. But not reallly by my time. More likely they would have thought the dad was an eccentric auto buff who liked old cars. Of course it was Hollywood too, so they can make stuff up.

      The president had a bridge to cross in 2009 and he stayed home. Then the people who tried to cross the bridge were pepper sprayed and batonned (although not nearly as badly as the Selma era protesters, to be sure). I don’t recall the president saying anything, but then, I stopped listening to him after his first crossing failure. That was enough for me. The speech was medicore in my view, full of sentimentality and cliches strung together like costume jewelry. It’s a disguise, the cloak of an absence. And you can tell the absense even in the words, or at least I do, words that lose the very particular idea that animates them and instead blur themselves in an orotund wander to include the jewelry of phenomenon in a form of inflation — the moon and rebellion, together? I’m not sure about that. But hey, anybody can criticize. It’s easy to live in the past and romanticize it and believe it isn’t even past — that’s human — it’s harder to live in the present and cross the bridges it places in front of you. Some span clear moral divides, black and white, others seem to suspend themselves over shades of gray. It’s hard. But 2009, it shouldn’t have been hard. Jim Crow is alive and well, wearing the a mask of money. It’s not black and white but it’s every bit as disgusting. A president should see it for what it is and use words that name it, in his time and not just in time gone.

      1. Jackrabbit

        I want to frame your second paragraph. But it would be far better to put it on a poster and plaster it everywhere.

        I think WilliamBanzai7 (wb7.hk) could do a lot with the sentiment that you express. I hope he sees it.

        H O P

    3. Rosario

      Interesting points. I would recommend checking out “The Invention of the White Race” by Theodore W. Allen:


      Check out both volumes if you can. The southern plantation capitalists and northern industrial capitalists alike buttressed the concept of race that we are familiar with today to maintain of “safe” (for capitalist interests) social order. Prior to reconstruction (and a little into it) southern white labor was marginalized and displaced by bond laborers (slaves) in a system that was accounted for front-to-back (field labor, ginning, milling). White labor was obviously resentful but happy to not be slaves themselves. Post American Civil War the landowners had a big problem, a larger labor force (black and white combined) with a common economic interest and a common agitation toward landowners. The solution was simple, rehabilitate the enslaved black laborer post emancipation as a placeholder for class antagonisms. No longer was it an issue of rich versus poor (a material construct), it became black versus white (an immaterial construct). The books cover it all better than I.

      1. Alejandro

        Also worth a read or re-read is “Drawing the Color Line”;
        …“There is not a country in world history in which racism has been more important, for so long a time, as the United States. And the problem of “the color line,” as W. E. B. Du Bois put it, is still with us. So it is more than a purely historical question to ask: How does it start?—and an even more urgent question: How might it end? Or, to put it differently: Is it possible for whites and blacks to live together without hatred?

        If history can help answer these questions, then the beginnings of slavery in North America—a continent where we can trace the coming of the first whites and the first blacks—might supply at least a few clues.”…

        …“Everything in the experience of the first white settlers acted as a pressure for the enslavement of blacks. “…


      2. Carla

        I suggest “Slavery By Another Name” by Douglas Blackmon. Beautifully written, hard to read, and essential.

      3. JTFaraday

        “Prior to reconstruction (and a little into it) southern white labor was marginalized and displaced by bond laborers (slaves) in a system that was accounted for front-to-back (field labor, ginning, milling). White labor was obviously resentful”

        I don’t think one should assume that “white labor” wanted to be labor at all in colonial and antebellum America. Forcing black people into forms of unfree labor made sense for everyone (else). It’s only in the 20th century, when they started asking for the same rights everyone else had under relatively well paid consumer capitalism–which had been massively populated by new immigrant labor– that forcing black people out of work (and then blaming them for it) became a new preoccupation.

  10. Peter Pan

    I watched the ABC nightly news last night and if IRCC, Obama said something to the effect that we are advancing in the area of civil rights. The next story was about protests of the killing of an unarmed teenager in Madison, WI. Contrast and contradiction!

  11. DJG

    Very important observations on the sexism of the Obama administration as well as what appears to be his own personal sexism. This isn’t the first time that his choice of language has been maladroit. And then there are the appointments. (Conversely, though, the DLC female Dems mainly aspire to the boys’ club. Critiques from women on the left are not appreciated in that regard.)

    1. flora

      It’s all about finding someone even lower on the totem pole to prove you ain’t at the bottom. Which says something about the character of that person who needs to find whole classes and groups – think that’s called prejudice – lower on the totem pole in order to think well of him/herself.

  12. alex morfesis

    obama is not black american…he is a black african who was born in america…his father worked for the british crown…there are no issues of reparations for him since no one in his linear family was ever discriminated against in america due to the color of their skin…he at most experienced a post civil rights era mild set of indignities that one can never remove from any culture…hate is part of the world…race and color have very little to do with it…mankind does not need a cheap excuse to argue and fight…at most he might have experienced along the way what some dark skined cuban immigrant might have experienced coming to america after the 60’s…he has zero connection to any historical economic deprivations experienced by “black folk” in america…so why would he worry much about the average black american…and please don’t bring up any mythical suggestions that he and his missus and ms Jarrett were “concerned” about the black community…I was the token white guy at the mid-south planning / bronzeville project, which was originally a design to pave over the historic community to make way for bigger campuses for IIT, U of C and Micheal Reese…he was part of the 4:59 crowd…at 4:59 you hear the sound of the alarm going on as they get into their saabs and drive to their home in the suburbs…

    1. TedWa

      That’s whats most upsetting to me, in 2008 I thought I voted for a black man with soul, I didn’t.

      1. Synoia

        Twas great packaging. Pity the contents were both not as advertised and apparently spoiled.

        1. TedWa

          Ohh, I got it in the first week he was in office. His words signified change that never happened. Hoax and chains is what he was saying. The 3rd and 4th terms of GW is what we got, GW empowered with Democratic support.

    2. Lambert Strether Post author

      ” why would he worry much about the average black american”

      I don’t think there’s a neat linear relationship between class/status and ability to empathize.

      Adding, this comment starts out uncomfortably close to “He’s a Kenyan.” I wouldn’t know where to begin with “he’s a real ____,” and frankly I think it’s best not to start. Who determines what’s “real” in these matters?

    1. wendy davis

      You bet one or two of them will, and it will sound a bit like Ford’s ‘Obama’s Dead End Criminal Justice “Reforms”, or Dixon’s ‘Obama’s Ferguson Commission a Joke: Why Liberal Proposals and “Solutions” Don’t Cut It’, speaking of ‘bridges never crossed’.

      I’ll blush while saying that I’d emailed Glen Ford recently to ask that BAR’s social networking person might highlight some of their work on the Twitter accounts of those in the BlackLives movement; some few of them need a wake-up call on how powerless to change a hella lot of this isn’t. I know that for so many blacks it would be difficult to call him out, but that’s certainly the shortest view imaginable. Given that the second black President (yes, Toni M.) has managed to drive this nation deeper into poverty for most, militarize dissent, stoke the industrial prison complex even further, engage in more wars than most citizens are even aware of, how long will it be before another black is elected to that office?

      And by the by, Obama himself pretended in the speech that he was simply a passive observer of what issues are ‘still to be solved’. Meh.

      Thanks, Lambert. Good piece.

  13. flora

    Ah yes. Obama’s “speeches” vs. actions. I think there’s a reason Obama lauds Reagan – a former actor in B movies – as his role model. Obama acts the part almost as well.

  14. Adam Freeman

    I think it is a good thing that we can make fun of Obama and black identity politics. We can complain about what Barack Obama didn’t do. We wouldn’t have these conversations if a Republicans are in the White House because they don’t have to care.

    So in my opinion it is a good conversation to have.

  15. Fake black guy Barack Obama, “we’re the slaves.” No you’re not, you’re the neocolonial Western-Oriented Gentlemen who robbed Africa blind, brought in to sell all the real slaves down the river. You’re the Vonceil Baker of Team America, flipping your pompoms for the cowboys. Love America, believe in America. Blow it out your ass. Grade America. F-plus, F-plus F, F, eFFFFFF.

  16. Llewelyn Moss

    Did not hear the speech. I can’t stand to listen to him anymore. Good analysis of his double talk.

    Also interesting that Obama has done nothing about legalizing Pot. In fact even after CA legalized medical MJ dispensaries, his DoJ stepped up efforts to harass them and shut them down. He has not made any federal acknowledgement of state’s rights to legalize it themselves (states WA and CO). And won’t let those legal state businesses use banks for their cash (more harassment).

    I mention this in the context that most of the people in jails for MJ use or small dealers are black. Gotta keep those for-profit prison beds full.

    1. weinerdog43

      …I can’t stand to listen to him anymore….

      I think that is the essence of what Lambert is getting at here. We are no longer interested in what BO has to say whether it’s good, bad or indifferent. Policy matters. The rest of your post perfectly illustrates how packaging vs. content has prevailed in his persona. As craazyman said upthread, BO had a bridge to cross in 2009, but stayed home. I knew the fix was in when he appointed Timmy Geithner and Larry Summers. There’s a club and I’m not in it.

  17. Rosario

    Obama’s speeches are dull and always have been. No news there. Speaking of making a case for reparations check out “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism”


    I’m in the process of reading it now, and so far it is an excellent book. The revelations of the text advocate for reparations implicitly not explicitly, but it’s builds a grand argument against the let-bygones-be-bygones crowd.

  18. participant-observer-observed

    Ahhh, 6 years of speeches…..

    ….this one well-timed to the Rahm Emmanuel run-off election in Chicago

    (March 10 is last date for voter registration! BTW!!)

    The speech will no-doubt fire up the OBOT crowd, be another addition to the oratory databases, but I doubt it will be seen by the potential voters who matter, because they are busy out in the streets extending the #BlackLivesMatter activism to Wisconsin from MO, FL, AZ, CA & NY, etc. and probably not watching TV or looking to this for youtube R & R!

    It does look like Bill Clinton salesmanship, but judging from Clinton, this will go on for another 20 years. More interesting for NC is to watch where the proceeds from the speaker fees end up, 501c3 spreadsheets, & all that (yawn).

  19. ian

    As Cato said : “When Cicero spoke, men marveled. When Caesar spoke, men marched”.

    More verbal cotton candy from Obama. The elites in the media will gush over it. The rest of us won’t remember a word of it a half hour later, and it won’t motivate anyone to get off their butt and actually do something.

  20. Mattski

    This is half-assed. The accusation about a failure to cite Bayard Rustin’s gayness just can’t stack up in import in a context where he mentions Baldwin. And the Middle Passage–yup, it sucked. But you fail to make the case for why it belongs here. Go back and drop that stuff, because your footnotes make those arguments look even less tenable and the more important points are buried. This scattershot missive will not change the minds of any of those Obots. Not closely reasoned. King was an internationalist who would have wept over Obama’s drone-policing of the world. Instead, Obama uses the occasion to reinforce the notion of American exceptionalism–a bad bargain that his black supporters have bought into even as half of the black middle class fell back into poverty during his tenure. If Ferguson isn’t in the speech–if continued apartheid and police murder aren’t part of the speech, the speech does not speak to our present. But you brag to us that you haven’t even read the speech. I know this is the internet, but. . . slackness.

  21. ep3

    yves, obama just makes me so sick to listen to him. they say doctors train themselves to be immune to death and other injuries to their fellow man. Obama (as well as most other rulers) must have the same immunity; he truly does not care about humans to the extent it is not profitable.

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