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Carl P. Leubsdorf: Not enough made of Obama’s remarks at Selma

By Carl P. Leubsdorf

The Dallas Morning News

Amid controversies over Hillary Clinton’s emails and Republican meddling with the Iran nuclear talks, President Barack Obama’s speech at the 50-year commemoration of the Selma voting rights protests received far less attention than it deserved.

Standing where the bloody beating of protesters at the Edmund Pettus Bridge inspired the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, Obama delivered a ringing response to critics who have questioned his belief in this nation’s historic values, connecting the civil rights struggle and other transformational battles to the current debate on American exceptionalism.

In so doing, he provided both a historical context and a road map to this country’s future for his on-site audience of government officials, veterans of those protests and black and white Alabamans and for the nation itself.

Obama called the civil rights movement “one leg in our long journey toward freedom,” declaring “the American instinct that led these young men and women to pick up the torch and cross this bridge is the same instinct that moved patriots to choose revolution over tyranny.

“It’s the same instinct that drew immigrants from across oceans and the Rio Grande; the same instinct that led women to reach for the ballot and workers to organize against an unjust status quo; the same instinct that led us to plan a flag at Iwo Jima and on the surface of the moon,” he said.

Rejecting critics who refuse to concede any American shortcomings, Obama defined “the American instinct” as “the idea held by generations of citizens who believed that Americans is a constant work in progress, who believe that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths.

“It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what’s right and shake up the status quo,” he said, adding, “That’s what makes us unique and cements our reputation as a beacon of opportunity.”

Selma’s influence extended far beyond the Alabama town, Obama said:

“Young people behind the Iron Curtain would see Selma and eventually tear down a wall. Young people in Soweto would hear Bobby Kennedy talk about ripples of hope and eventually banish the scourge of apartheid.

“Young people in Burma went to prison rather than submit to military rule. From the streets of Tunis to the Maidan in Ukraine, this generation of young people can draw strength from this place, where the powerless could change the world’s greatest superpower and push their leaders to expand the boundaries of freedom.”

In recent months, prominent Republicans like former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal have pointedly questioned the first African-American president’s values, going beyond frequent statements that his policies would install European-style socialism and the oft-expressed doubts about his birthplace to question his belief in American exceptionalism _ even his patriotism.

Some criticism stems from his 2009 news conference comments equating America’s belief in its exceptional status with similar beliefs by other countries. “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism,” Obama said, prompting critics to charge that his words rejected the concept of American exceptionalism.

Recently, Giuliani stirred a tempest by telling a private GOP fundraiser, “I do not believe that the president loves America,” adding that Obama “wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.”

Such statements ignore _ or perhaps reflect _ the fact that the 44th president, as the son of a black, Kenya-born father and a white, Kansas-born mother, exemplifies both the promise of America and its transformation from a predominantly white-dominated, European-descended society to a more multicultural one.

He sounded a bipartisan note by praising Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush for passing the initial Voting Rights Act and signing two subsequent renewals, calling on the 100 members of Congress present to “honor this day” by restoring a key provision the Supreme Court ruled out, leaving “the product of so much sacrifice in the face of wanton violence … weakened, its future subject to partisan rancor.”

Rather than point to himself, as he sometimes has done, Obama singled out individuals who sacrificed their own lives pursuing civil rights for all. In an era of great change, he said, “what has not changed is the imperative of citizenship, that willingness of a 26-year-old deacon, or a Unitarian minister, or a young mother of five, to decide that they loved this country so much that they’d risk everything to realize its promise.

“That’s what it means to love America,” the President said. “That’s what it means to believe in America. That’s what it means when we say America is exceptional.”

And it’s what Obama’s presidency exemplifies.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: carl.p.leubsdorf@gmail.com.

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