Why President Obama’s Selma Speech Was So Disappointing

March 9, 2015  |  

I’m sorry, but I’m having a difficult time feeling inspired by what some in the media are calling a “powerful and poignant” speech made by President Obama during the 50th commemoration of the historic walk through Selma, Alabama. Not when Black people like Kevin McGill are still being harassed and imprisoned and it all appears to be sanctioned by the state.

According to ABC News 7:

A sanitation worker in an Atlanta suburb is behind bars for getting to work too early. Kevin McGill was sentenced to 30 days in jail for violating a Sandy Springs ordinance that says workers can only haul trash between the hours of 7am and 7pm. McGill was cited for picking up the trash just after 5am one morning. He says he could not believe when the prosecutor asked the judge for the maximum punishment.

“I was stunned. I didn’t know what to think. I was shocked,” he said.

The prosecutor, Bill Riley, makes no apologies for locking sanitation workers up.

“Fines don’t seem to work,” Riley said.

He says they are a nuisance to sleeping residents. McGill had only been on the job for three months.

Now he has to spend the next 14 weekends in jail, while he works during the week… after 7am.”

This small town Georgia prosecutor sounds like a terrorist, who is using the justice system to inflict as much personal retribution and paternalism his little evil heart can dish. And it is not only costing the taxpayers (who will foot a sizable portion of McGill’s stay in county), but also McGill who more than likely be hit with not only court fees, but might now have to explain to all his future employers his brief time in jail – that’s if he can get past the application process.

Of course, the bigger tragedy here is that these stories about how poor (and that includes the working poor) and Black people are abused by law enforcement and our court system are not unusual in America. The Ferguson report is proof of that. And yet McGill’s story is treated incidentally and told almost in a humorous fashion. There is no exposé into the local district attorney’s office or questions asked about the actual ethics of his prosecution or even commentary about the larger question of prosecutorial abuse. That aspect of the story, and stories like it, are always glossed over. Always.

Just like in President Obama’s Selma speech.

In most of the mainstream press, President Obama drew particular high praises for beautifully articulating both the spirit and struggle associated with the Civil Rights era. In particular, he points how marchers were often condemned as “communists, half-breeds, outside agitators, sexual and moral degenerates, and worse – everything but the name their parents gave them.”


As is true across the landscape of American history, we cannot examine this moment in isolation. The march on Selma was part of a broader campaign that spanned generations; the leaders that day part of a long line of heroes.

We gather here to celebrate them. We gather here to honor the courage of ordinary Americans willing to endure billy clubs and the chastening rod; tear gas and the trampling hoof; men and women who despite the gush of blood and splintered bone would stay true to their North Star and keep marching toward justice.”

And yet many would argue that the march has continued on into Ferguson, New York, L.A., Cleveland and other points ravaged by police abuse and violence – an issue which only seems to have gotten considerably worse over the last 50 years. In fact, more Black men are in prisons today than there were in the time pre-Civil Rights era.

In the speech President Obama acknowledges these injustices, as well as the findings in the Ferguson report. He also reminds us that these injustices are “ woefully familiar” and “evoked the kind of abuse and disregard for citizens that spawned the Civil Rights Movement.”

But in the next breath, President Obama then argues that things have gotten better since Selma. And that Ferguson is not “endemic, or sanctioned by law and custom like it was pre-Civil Rights Movement.” More specifically he tells the crowd:

We do a disservice to the cause of justice by intimating that bias and discrimination are immutable, or that racial division is inherent to America. If you think nothing’s changed in the past fifty years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or L.A. of the Fifties. Ask the female CEO who once might have been assigned to the secretarial pool if nothing’s changed. Ask your gay friend if it’s easier to be out and proud in America now than it was thirty years ago. To deny this progress – our progress – would be to rob us of our own agency; our responsibility to do what we can to make America better.”

It is true that we have Black CEOs running Fortune 500 companies and gay Black friends who are now able to say they’re gay openly, but the real question is how many of those Black CEOS and gay Black friends can walk the streets freely without threat or fear of harassment by the police based solely off the color of their skin? I bet if we posed that question to the same groups, very few would speak of progress.

The point here is that what happened in Selma was more than about getting across the bridge to register to vote, just like what happened Ferguson is more than about a single kid who was mercilessly killed in the street by an overzealous police officer. But rather those marches were an indictment of an entire predatory system, which not only views Black people as subhuman. but also actively treats Black people like profit and revenue.

The same predatory system of oppression, which created peonage and sent many of our ancestors post-slavery and Reconstruction right back into bondage. The same predatory system, which created literary tests, taxes and engaged in flat-out fraud to deny people’s constitutional right to vote. And the same predatory system, which today continues to punish and exploit people like McGill, whose only real crime is being Black under the jurisdiction of a white man with an ax to grind.

What happened in Selma and in Ferguson wasn’t just about all colors of people uniting and fighting to change America. But both those narratives were and are also about state-sponsored violence. We should speak that. We should speak that entire truth.

In the speech, President Obama spoke favorably of the young people throughout history, particularly the young people in Soweto, Burma, Tusnia and the kids in Ferguson who’d risen up in similar fashion to demand change. He also acknowledged that true progress, “requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what’s right and shake up the status quo.”

And yet as President Obama waxed poetic about the bravery of the young disruptors of the status quo, he fails to mention the responsibility his office holds in disruption of this status quo and facilitating progress. Instead he treats himself as an outsider and an observer pointing out everybody else’s burdens and responsibilities. Almost as if to say, you rainbow-colored bunch of young people keep on marching and I guess someone will eventually come along and be bold about things. Someday.

As clearly, it will not be now and with this president. As pointed out by Dr. Stacey Patton in Dame Magazine:

As MSNBC reports, Obama fielded a question about why the DOJ didn’t charge Wilson by saying that, “he had ‘complete confidence and [stood] fully behind’ the DOJ’s decision regarding Wilson, whom said he killed Brown in self-defense. “We may never know exactly what happened, but Officer Wilson—like anyone else who is charged with a crime—benefits from due process and a reasonable-doubt standard,” Obama said. “If there is uncertainty about what happened then you can’t just charge him anyway, just because what happened was tragic,” Obama added, noting that it was “an objective, thorough, independent federal investigation.”

And in many respects, seeing the nation’s first Black president being lead across the Edmund Pettus bridge by motorcade is a powerful symbol of King Jr.’s realized dream. Likewise, listening to him evoke the names of Sojourner Truth, Mary Lou Hamer, Langston Hughes, John Lewis, among others is nothing short of magical.

But shit is real out here and we are way past the point of symbolism. And the commemoration of Selma was the perfect time for Obama to talk about what he and Eric Holder could be doing in their last days to fix policies and make both the prosecution and dismantling of these rogue police departments possible. Instead he takes the political coward’s way out and tells everyone to go vote instead.

The problem is that we all did: for you.

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