President Obama uses familiar rhetoric in his ‘Bloody Sunday’ speech

Michael Walsh
President Barack Obama speaks near the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Saturday, March 7, 2015, in Selma, Ala. This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday,' a civil rights march in which protestors were beaten, trampled and tear-gassed by police at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma. (AP Photo/Bill Frakes)

President Barack Obama on Saturday ran through a list of pioneers he feels exemplify the possibilities of the American spirit.

The commander in chief, speaking at the commemoration of “Bloody Sunday,” sounded a bit like his 2008 self while talking about the men and women who fought for voting rights in Selma, Ala., 50 years ago.

“The American instinct that led these young men and women to pick up the torch and cross this bridge, that’s the same instinct that drove patriots to choose revolution over tyranny,” he said from the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Back in 1965, Alabama state troopers and local police beat a crowd of about 600 peaceful protesters during a march from Selma to Montgomery in that spot.

Fast-forward to Jan. 8, 2008, in New Hampshire: Obama delivered his famous “Yes We Can” speech, in which he praised the slaves, abolitionists, immigrants, pioneers, workers, and suffragists who helped shape the United States.

On Saturday, he employed similar rhetoric and even used some of the same phrases — such as “creed written into our founding documents” and “instinct that led women to reach for the ballot” — to connect the nonviolent marchers of Bloody Sunday with a larger narrative.

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

Obama said that Americans who understand that our nation is a “work in progress” whose status quo must be shaken up have cemented our reputation across the world as a beacon of opportunity.

“Look at our history. We are Lewis and Clark and Sacagawea, pioneers who braved the unfamiliar,” Obama told the crowd, “followed by a stampede of miners and farmers and entrepreneurs and hucksters. That’s our spirit. That’s who we are!”

His list of American heroes included slaves, cowboys, laborers, firefighters, GIs, Tuskegee airmen, Navajo code talkers, and Japanese-American soldiers who were fighting for the same nation that interned their families.

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

President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law on Aug. 6, 1965, largely thanks to the demonstrators who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. on Bloody Sunday.