The Joshua Generation
This is how it began, the telling of a story that changed America.
At midday on March 4, 2007, Barack Obama, the junior senator from Illinois, was scheduled to speak at Brown Chapel, in Selma, Alabama. His campaign for President was barely a month old, and he had come South prepared to confront, for the first time, the Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton. He planned to discuss in public what so many believed would ultimately be his undoing—his race, his youth, his “exotic” background. “Who is Barack Obama?” Barack Hussein Obama? From now until Election Day, his opponents, Democratic and Republican, would ask the question on public platforms, in television and radio commercials, often insinuating a disqualifying otherness about the man: his childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia; his Kenyan father; his Kansas- born, yet cosmopolitan, mother.
Obama’s answer to that question helped form the language and distinctiveness of his campaign. Two years out of the Illinois State Senate and barely free of his college loans, Obama entered the Presidential race with a serious, yet unexceptional, set of center- left policy positions. They were not radically different from Clinton’s, save on the crucial question of the Iraq war. Nor did he possess an impressive résumé of executive experience or legislative accomplishment. But who Obama was, where he came from, how he came to understand himself, and, ultimately, how he managed to project his own temperament and personality as a reflection of American ambitions and hopes would be at the center of his rhetoric and appeal. In addition to his political views, what Obama proposed as the core of his candidacy was a self—a complex, cautious, intelligent, shrewd, young African-American man. He was not a great man yet by any means, but he was the promise of greatness. There, in large measure, was the wellspring of his candidacy, its historical dimension and conceit, and there was no escaping its gall. Obama himself used words like “presumptuous” and “audacious.”
In Selma, Obama prepared to nominate himself as the inheritor of the most painful of all American struggles, the struggle of race: not race as invoked by his predecessors in electoral politics or in the civil- rights movement, not race as an insistence on ethnicity or redress; rather, Obama would make his biracial ancestry a metaphor for his ambition to create a broad coalition of support, to rally Americans behind a narrative of moral and political progress. He was not necessarily the hero of that narrative, but he just might be its culmination. In the months to come, Obama borrowed brazenly from the language and imagery of an epochal American movement and applied it to a campaign for the Presidency.
The city of Selma clusters around the murky waters of the Alabama River. Selma had been a prosperous manufacturing center and an arsenal for the Confederate Army. Now it is a forlorn place of twenty thousand souls. Broad Street ordinarily lacks all but the most listless human traffic. African Americans live mostly in modest houses, shotgun shacks, and projects on the east side of town; whites tend to live, more prosperously, on the west side.
Selma’s economy experiences a burst of vitality during the annual flowerings of historical memory. The surviving antebellum plantation houses are, for the most part, kept up for the few tourists who still come. In mid- April, Civil War buffs arrive in town to commemorate the Confederate dead in a re- enactment of the Battle of Selma, where, in 1865, a Confederate general, a particularly sadistic racist named Nathan Bedford Forrest, suffered defeat. The blacks in town do not share in the mood of Confederate nostalgia. An almost entirely black housing project just outside of town was, for decades, named for General Forrest, who had traded slaves and became Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
After the Civil War, black students came to Selma University, a small Bible college, and the town—a town of churches—became renowned as a center of African- American preaching. Selma, Ralph Abernathy wrote in his memoirs, “was to many of us the ‘Capital of the Black Belt,’ a place where intelligent young people and learned elders gathered.” At the same time, because of the grip of Jim Crow, Selma was, as late as the nineteensixties, a place of literacy tests and poll taxes; almost no blacks were able to register to vote. Surrounded by disdainful white registrars, they were made to answer questions like “How many bubbles are there in a bar of soap?”
The local sheriff, Jim Clark, was in the grotesque folkloric mold of Birmingham’s Bull Connor; he wore a button reading “Never” on his uniform and could be relied upon to take the most brutal measures against any sign of anti- segregationist protest—which is why, as the civil-rights movement developed, the grassroots leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (S.C.L.C.) made Selma a test case in the struggle for voting rights.
On January 2, 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr., came to Brown Chapel, a brick citadel of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and told the congregation that Selma had become a “symbol of bitter-end resistance to the civil-rights movement in the Deep South.” Just as Montgomery had been the focus of the first bus boycotts and the struggle for civil rights and equal access to public facilities, Selma, King and his comrades decided, would be the battleground for voting rights.
Barack Obama had been invited to Selma more than a month before the anniversary event by his friend John Lewis, a veteran congressman from Atlanta. In his late sixties, portly and bald, Lewis was known around Capitol Hill and in the African-American community less as a legislator than as a popularly elected griot, a moral exemplar and a wizened truthteller of the civil-rights movement. During the long “conservative darkness,” from the first Reagan inaugural onward, Lewis said, it was especially “hard and essential” to keep progressive politics alive. “And the only way to do that was to keep telling the story,” he said.While King was organizing for the S.C.L.C. in Alabama, Lewis had been the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (sncc). Lewis was present at nearly every important march. He was at King’s side at the front of countless demonstrations and in meetings with John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson in the Oval Office. He was the youngest—and most militant—of the many speakers at the March on Washington in 1963; now he was the only one among them still alive. People called John Lewis a hero every day of his life, but now he was feeling quite unheroic, unsure whom to support: the Clintons, who had “never disappointed” him over the years, or a young and talented man who had introduced himself to the country with a thrilling speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention in Boston. At first, Lewis signaled to Obama that he would be with him, but the Clintons and their circle were appealing to his sense of friendship and loyalty—and they were almost as hard to resist as the lure of history. Feeling acute pressure, Lewis promised both the Clintons and Obama that he would soon have “an executive session with myself” and decide.
For Lewis, growing up in Pike County, Alabama, Jim Crow was like a familiar but ominous neighbor. As a boy, he wanted to leave so badly that he dreamed of making a wooden bus out of the pine trees that surrounded his family’s house and riding it all the way to California. His parents were sharecroppers and he was one of ten children. He wanted to be a preacher, and, to practice, he declaimed sermons to the chickens in the coop in the backyard. He preached to them weekdays and Sundays alike, marrying the roosters and hens, presiding over funerals for the dead. (“There was something magical, almost mystical, about that moment when those dozens and dozens of chickens, all wide awake, were looking straight at me, and I was looking back at them, all of us in total, utter silence. It felt very spiritual, almost religious.”)
In 1955, Lewis listened on the radio to a young preacher from Atlanta giving a sermon called “Paul’s Letter to the American Christians.” The preacher, Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke in the voice of the apostle Paul addressing Christians, white Christians, condemning them for a lack of compassion toward their black brothers and sisters. As he listened to the sermon, Lewis wanted to become a minister like Dr. King. Later that year, he joined a movement that started when a department store clerk in Montgomery named Rosa Parks was arrested after she refused to change her seat on the Cleveland Avenue bus. As a seminarian at Troy State, Lewis took workshops in nonviolent resistance and joined the drive to integrate lunch counters and bus- station waiting rooms in Nashville and other Southern towns and cities. He passed out the axioms of Jesus, Gandhi, Thoreau, and King to his fellow demonstrators even as he was being taunted as an agitator, a “nigger,” a “coon,” as teenaged thugs flicked lighted cigarettes at his neck. As a Freedom Rider, Lewis was nearly killed at the Greyhound station in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Getting beaten, arrested, and jailed became a kind of routine, his regular service, and, after each incident, he would rest a little, as if all he had done was to put in a decent day’s labor:
Some of the deepest, most delicious moments of my life were getting out of jail in a place like Americus, or Hattiesburg, or Selma— especially Selma—and finding my way to the nearest Freedom House, taking a good long shower, putting on a pair of jeans and a fresh shirtand going to some little Dew Drop Inn, some little side of-the-road juke joint where I’d order a hamburger or cheese sandwich and a cold soda and walk over to that jukebox and stand there with a quarter in my hand, and look over every song on that box because this choice had to be just right. . . . and then I would finally drop that quarter in and punch up Marvin Gaye or Curtis Mayfield or Aretha, and I would sit down with my sandwich, and I would let that music wash over me, just wash right through me. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt anything so sweet.
John Lewis knew Selma, knew all its little streets, the churches, the cafés, the Hotel Albert, the paved roads in the white parts of town, the shanties and the George Washington Carver projects where the blacks lived. He knew Jim Clark, the sheriff, of course, and the mayor, Joe Smitherman, who, although less virulent than Clark, slipped and spoke of “Martin Luther Coon.” Even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there were few places in Selma where black people could meet safely, especially if it was known that they were meeting for political purposes. They got together at a couple of modest restaurants—Clay & Liston’s, Walker’s Café sometimes—but mostly they gathered at Brown Chapel and at the First Baptist Church, just down the street.
At the rallies and services at Brown Chapel, most of the speakers were from the S.C.L.C. or sncc, the Urban League or the N.A.A.C.P.—the mainstream groups of the civil- rights movement—but Malcolm X, too, had his turn in the pulpit. In early February, 1965, while King sat in a Selma jail cell, Malcolm spoke in Selma, warning, “I think the people in this part of the world would do well to listen to Dr. Martin Luther King and give him what he’s asking for and give it to him fast, before some other factions come along and try to do it another way.”
King had received the Nobel Prize for Peace in December, and he described the “creative battle” that “twenty- two million Negroes” were waging against “the starless midnight of racism.” Now, in early February, he wrote a letter from his Selma jail cell that ran as an advertisement in the
New York Times:
When the King of Norway participated in awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to me he surely did not think that in less than sixty days I would be in jail . . . By jailing hundreds of Negroes, the city of Selma, Alabama, has revealed the persisting ugliness of segregation to the nation and the world. When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed many decent Americans were lulled into complacency because they thought the day of difficult struggle was over. Why are we in jail? Have you ever been required to answer 100 questions on government, some abstruse even to a political science specialist, merely to vote? Have you ever stood in line with over a hundred others and after waiting an entire day seen less than ten given the qualifying test?
THIS IS SELMA, ALABAMA. THERE ARE MORE NEGROES IN JAIL WITH ME THAN THERE ARE ON THE VOTING ROLLS.
But apart from voting rights, merely to be a person in Selma is not easy. When reporters asked Sheriff Clark if a woman defendant was married, he replied, “She’s a nigger woman and she hasn’t got a Miss or Mrs. in front of her name.”
This is the U.S.A. in 1965. We are in jail simply because we cannot tolerate these conditions for ourselves or our nation . . .
Martin Luther King, Jr.
King was released soon afterward, but Sheriff Clark and his men went on attacking the voting- rights protesters in town, shocking them with cattle prods, throwing them in jail. Since the day King arrived in Selma, Clark’s men had jailed four thousand men and women. Lewis gave a handwritten statement to reporters in Selma saying that Clark had proved himself “basically no different from a Gestapo officer during the Fascist slaughter of the Jews.” At a confrontation on the steps of the Selma court - house, he punched one of King’s allies, the Reverend C. T. Vivian, in the mouth so hard that he broke a finger. Then he arrested Vivian. “Would a fiction writer,” King wrote a few weeks later in the New York Times, “have the temerity to invent a character wearing a sheriff’s badge at the head of a helmeted posse who punched a clergyman in the mouth and then proudly boasted: ‘If I hit him, I don’t know it.’ ”
At a nighttime rally in the nearby town of Marion, a state trooper shot a young Army veteran and pulpwood worker named Jimmie Lee Jackson twice in the stomach. ( Jackson had attempted to register to vote five times.) In the same skirmish, Jackson’s mother, Viola, was beaten, and his eighty-two- year-old grandfather, Cager Lee, was injured, too, but declared himself ready for the next demonstration. Jackson lingered for several days, then died.
At the funeral, in Brown Chapel, King declared, “Jimmie Lee Jackson is speaking to us from the casket and he is saying to us that we must substitute courage for caution. . . . We must not be bitter, and we must not harbor ideas of retaliating with violence.” James Bevel, one of the youngest leaders of sncc, suggested that the movement lead a march, from Selma to the capital, Montgomery, place Jimmie Lee Jackson’s casket on the steps of the capitol, and demand justice from the governor, George C. Wallace. Earlier that month, Bevel had been beaten with a nightstick by Sheriff Clark, thrown into a jail cell, and pummeled with cold water from a hose.
When Governor Wallace heard reports about what King and the others were planning, he told his aides, “I’m not gonna have a bunch of niggers walking along a highway in this state as long as I’m governor.” Over the years, Lewis has told the story of the afternoon of March 7, 1965—“Bloody Sunday”—hundreds of times. He tells it best in his memoir, Walking with the Wind: I can’t count the number of marches I have participated in in my lifetime, but there was something peculiar about this one. It was more than disciplined. It was somber and subdued, almost like a funeral procession. . . .
There was no singing, no shouting—just the sound of scuffling feet. There was something holy about it, as if we were walking down a sacred path. It reminded me of Gandhi’s march to the sea. Dr. King used to say there is nothing more powerful than the rhythm of marching feet, and that was what this was, the marching feet of a determined people. That was the only sound you could hear. Lewis and a young comrade from the S.C.L.C., Hosea Williams, led the march—a huge, double- file line of six hundred people. Lewis was twenty-five at the time, a slight, shy, yet determined figure in a tan raincoat with a knapsack on his back containing a book, a toothbrush, and a couple of pieces of fruit (“in case I got hungry in jail”). Lewis and Williams led the crowd from Brown Chapel, past a housing project, and toward the arching span of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. (Pettus was the last Confederate general to serve in the U.S. Senate.) At the crest of the bridge, Lewis and Williams came to a halt. Six hundred men, women, and children stopped behind them.
There facing us at the bottom of the other side, stood a sea of bluehelmeted, blue-uniformed Alabama state troopers, line after line of them, dozens of battle- ready lawmen stretched from one side of U.S. Highway 80 to the other. . . . On one side of the road I could see a crowd of about a hundred whites, laughing and hollering, waving Confederate flags.
Hosea Williams looked down into the water and asked Lewis, “Can you swim?” He could not.
Again, they started forward. As Lewis recalled, “The only sounds were our footsteps on the bridge and the snorting of a horse ahead of us.” The troopers slipped gas masks over their heads. Behind them were many more white men; Clark had deputized volunteers from around Dallas County, a posse armed with whips and nightsticks. One even brandished a rubber hose wrapped with barbed wire.
The officer in charge, Major John Cloud, told Lewis that the protesters made up an “unlawful assembly” that was “not conducive to the public safety.” Cloud ordered Lewis and Williams to turn around and “go back to your church or to your homes.”
“May we have a word with the Major?” Williams asked.
“There is no word to be had,” Cloud said and gave them two minutes to disperse.
Lewis knew that to advance would be too aggressive, to retreat impossible. And so he said to Hosea Williams, “We should kneel and pray.” They turned around and passed the word. Hundreds got to their knees.
But within sixty or seventy seconds of the order to disperse, Cloud lost his patience and ordered his men, “Troopers, advance!” Lewis remembered the terrible sound of the troopers approaching:
The clunk of the troopers’ heavy boots, the whoops of rebel yells from the white onlookers, the clip- clop of horses’ hooves hitting the hard asphalt of the highway, the voice of a woman shouting, “Get ’em! Get the niggers!”
And then they were upon us. The first of the troopers came over me, a large, husky man. Without a word, he swung his club against the left side of my head. I didn’t feel any pain, just the thud of the blow, and my legs giving way. I raised an arm—a reflex motion—as I curled up in the “prayer for protection” position. And then the same trooper hit me again. And everything started to spin.
I heard something that sounded like gunshots. And then a cloud of smoke rose all around us.
I’d never experienced tear gas before. This, I would learn later, was a particularly toxic form called C-4, made to induce nausea. I began choking, coughing. I couldn’t get air into my lungs. I felt as if I was taking my last breath. If there was ever a time in my life for me to panic, it should have been then. But I didn’t. I remember how strangely calm I felt as I thought, This is it. People are going to die here. I’m going to die here.
Dozens of demonstrators were carried off to Good Samaritan Hospital, the biggest black hospital in Selma. The rest retreated to Brown Chapel, running, stumbling, gasping for breath. Some stopped and tried to flush out their stinging eyes with water from puddles in the street. The police and the vigilantes kept chase until—and sometimes past—the church door. At First Baptist, a vigilante threw a teenaged protester through a church window. At Brown Chapel, the pews were filled with bleeding, weeping people.
John Lewis had a fractured skull. His raincoat was splattered with mud and his own blood. But he was still conscious, and somehow moving. He refused to go to Good Samaritan and headed for Brown Chapel instead. Once inside, he stepped to the pulpit and said to his fellow demonstrators, “I don’t know how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam. I don’t see how he can send troops to the Congo. I don’t see how he can send troops to Africa, and he can’t send troops to Selma, Alabama.”
“Tell it!” the marchers shouted. “Go on!”
“Next time we march,” Lewis declared, “we may have to keep going when we get to Montgomery. We may have to go on to Washington.”
That night, at around 9 p.m. on the East Coast, ABC television broke into its broadcast of the film “Judgment at Nuremberg,” for what the announcer called “a long film report of the assault on Highway 80.” The ABC audience that night was huge—around forty- eight million–-and the newscast lasted fifteen minutes before the film resumed.
Bloody Sunday was likely the most important act of nonviolent resistance since 1930, when Mahatma Gandhi led seventy- eight other satyagrahis (truth-force activists) in a twenty- three-day march from his ashram to the coastal town of Dandi in protest against the British government and the colonial tax on salt. For millions of Americans, the sight of peaceful protesters being clubbed and gassed in Selma disturbed the foundations of American indifference no less than Gandhi inspired Indians and unnerved the British.
On March 15th, before a joint session of Congress, President Johnson delivered the most ringing endorsement of civil rights ever by a sitting President. In his first twenty years in the House and Senate, from 1937 to 1957, Johnson had voted against all kinds of bills proposing to help blacks, including anti lynching measures. As Robert Caro makes clear in his multivolume biography of Johnson, L.B.J. had been profoundly affected by his experience as a young man in Cotulla, Texas, teaching poor Mexican-American children, but it was only in the mid-fifties —when, as Caro writes, his “ambition and compassion were finally pointing in the same direction”—that he allowed himself to start working in behalf of civil rights. By 1965, the white supremacists in Congress were weak; Johnson had crushed Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election; the balance of power was shifting, making a bill possible. That night, Johnson said, “At times, history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama.” Johnson’s Justice Department had drafted a bill two days before Bloody Sunday. He said that, even if the country could double its wealth and “conquer the stars,” if it proved “unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation.” The votingrights act that he was introducing, he said, would prove insufficient if it allowed the country to relax in its pursuit of justice for the men and women whose forebears had come to America in slave ships:
What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement, which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life.
Their cause must be our cause, too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.
Watching Johnson that night on television in Selma, King wept. Six days later, on March 21st, King, Lewis, and thousands of others set out from Brown Chapel on a peaceful march to Montgomery, the “Cradle of the Confederacy.” When, five days later, they reached the capital and its government square, King spoke to the crowd as Governor Wallace peeked through the blinds of his office. King declared that segregation was “on its deathbed.” Bombings, church fires, or the beating of clergymen would not deter them. “We are on the move now!” King said. And his aim, “our aim,” was not to defeat or humiliate the white man, but, rather, to “win his friendship and understanding” and achieve a society “that can live with its
I know you are asking today, “How long will it take?” . . . I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long because truth pressed to the earth will rise again.
How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever.
How long? Not long, because you shall reap what you sow. . . .
How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.
This last refrain became Barack Obama’s favorite quotation. He was three when it was uttered. Over the years, Obama read the leading texts of the black liberation movement: the slave narratives; the speeches of Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, and Malcolm X; the crucial court opinions of desegregation; John Lewis’s memoir. Scenes of the movement’s most terrifying and triumphant moments—dogs tearing at marchers, King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, his assassination on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, in Memphis—unspooled in his mind in “black and white,” he said, exciting his imagination and deepening his longing for a firm identification with African- American community and history and for a sense of purpose in his life. Obama’s racial identity was both provided and chosen; he pursued it, learned it. Surrounded by a loving white mother and sympathetic white grandparents, and raised mainly on a multicultural island where the one missing hue was his own, Obama had to claim that identity after willful study, observation, even presumption. On a visit to Chicago during law school, Obama, a friend noticed, was reading Parting the Waters, the first volume of Taylor Branch’s magnificent history of the civil-rights movement. Only a few years earlier, he had endured a tumultuous inner struggle about his identity, but Obama nodded at the book and said with absolute confidence, “Yes, it’s my story.”
In January, 2007, a month before Obama formally declared his candidacy for President, the polls indicated that Hillary Clinton had a firm hold on the African-American vote. At that time, not all African- Americans knew who Obama was; among those who did, many were either wary of another symbolic black candidacy, another Shirley Chisholm or Jesse Jackson, or loyal to the Clintons.
African-Americans know that their votes are especially crucial in the nominating process. “The Negro potential for political power is now substantial,” Dr. King wrote in 1963, in Why We Can’t Wait. “In South Carolina, for example, the 10,000-vote margin that gave President Kennedy his victory in 1960 was the Negro vote. . . . Consider the political power that would be generated if the million Americans who marched in 1963 also put their energy directly into the electoral process.” King’s prediction, which preceded passage of the Voting Rights Act and the registration of many hundreds of thousands more black voters, became an axiom of Democratic Party politics. No one knew this calculus better than Bill Clinton. A white Southerner, Clinton had read black writers and had black friends—a sharp difference from nearly all of his predecessors. The syndicated black radio host Tom Joyner recalled how Clinton awarded Rosa Parks the Congressional Medal of Freedom in 1996, and, at the ceremony, Jessye Norman led the audience in “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the James Weldon Johnson hymn commonly known as the Negro national anthem. “Every living black dignitary was in the audience that great day and everyone stood and sang the first verse loudly and proudly,” Joyner recalled. “As we got to the second verse, the singing got faint. Most of us left it up to Miss Norman, who had the words in front of her. The only person in the room who sang every word of every verse by heart was Bill Clinton. By the third verse, he and Jessye Norman were doing a duet.”
Writing in The New Yorker in 1998, in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the sanctimony parade that followed, Toni Morrison remarked that Bill Clinton, “white skin notwithstanding,” had been the “first black president,” a Southerner born poor, a “saxophone- playing, McDonald’s- and-junk food-loving boy,” the first national leader to have a real affinity for and ease with African- American friends, churches, and communities.
In January, according to a Washington Post/ABC poll, Hillary Clinton was ahead among African- Americans three to one. Obama had failed so far to win support from civil-rights leaders. There was a constant stream of negative talk in public forums and on the Internet, trash talk about his patriotism, his left-wing associations, how he’d been schooled and indoctrinated at an Indonesian madrassa. Some civil-rights leaders of the older generation, like Jackson and the Reverend Al Sharpton, who were worried about being surpassed by a new generation, betrayed their anxieties by trying to instruct Barack Obama on the question of genuine blackness. “Just because you are our color doesn’t make you our kind,” Sharpton said.
Obama and his closest aides recalled that he had been in a similar position at the start of the Illinois Senate race in 2004, with many urban blacks more comfortable, at first, with machine politicians and many whites more comfortable with just about anyone but a black man with a foreignsounding name that rhymed with the first name of the most notorious terrorist in the world. “We’d been in the same place before,” David Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist, recalled. “But one of the most important things you face in a Presidential campaign is the fact that there is almost a year between the announcement and the first real contest, in the Iowa caucuses, and so you have a whole series of surrogate contests in the interim.” Selma was the first of those surrogate contests. One week before the event, the Clinton campaign learned that Obama was speaking at Brown Chapel. They hurriedly made arrangements for Hillary Clinton to speak three blocks down the street, at First Baptist Church. Artur Davis, an African- American congressman from Alabama and a friend of Obama’s, said that Hillary Clinton knew she had to come to Selma: “There was no better place than this stage to make a statement about her seriousness in contesting the black vote.” The former President would come, too, and be inducted into the National Voting Rights Museum’s “hall of fame.”
Bill Clinton was wise enough to know that in Selma Hillary could emerge from the day’s news cycle with, at best, an undramatic, gaffe-less draw. He had been counseled to keep his remarks to a minimum in Selma lest he draw attention from his wife. When he and Hillary spoke side by side at the funeral of Coretta Scott King, in February, 2006, he had been masterly, heartfelt, as good, many felt, as any of the best black preachers in the pulpit that day. By comparison, Hillary, speaking just after him, was stiff, awkward, routine. When Bill Clinton read the comparative accounts of their speeches, he told me that he said to Hillary, “If we both spoke at the Wellesley reunion, you’d probably get a better reception. You can’t pay any attention to this. This is my life. I grew up in these churches. I knew more people by their first name in that church than at the end of my freshman year. This is my life. You don’t have to be better at this than me. You got to be better than whoever.”
At First Baptist, Hillary Clinton spoke earnestly and well. (Her husband did not attend the speech.) Her goal was to project the movement forward and to place herself within its mainstream. “After all the hard work getting rid of literacy tests and poll taxes, we’ve got to stay awake because we’ve got a march to continue,” she said in her speech. “How can we rest while poverty and inequality continue to rise?”
Clinton tied the history of Selma and civil rights to a narrative of American emancipation, generalizing its lessons and implications to include herself. The Voting Rights Act, she insisted, was a triumph for all men and women. “Today it is giving Senator Obama the chance to run for President,” she said. “And, by its logic and spirit, it is giving the same chance to Governor Bill Richardson to run as a Hispanic. And, yes, it is giving me that chance, too.” The writing was, at times, more convincing than the delivery, especially when Clinton, a daughter of northern Illinois, began dropping her “g”s and channeling her inner Blanche DuBois. Where had that accent come from? Some of Obama’s black critics, especially those steeped in the church and the lineage of civil-rights- era speakers, said that he did not have a natural gift for the pulpit, either, that his attempts at combining the rhetoric of the sacred and the street—a traditional language of liberation and exhortation—sometimes sounded forced. But it took no expert to hear the extra effort in Clinton’s voice. She was sincere, she was trying, but she did not win the day in Selma.