At Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on July 30, Obama spoke in terms that broadly reflect a quarter century of his public commentary on our country and its history of grappling with injustice. He has consistently praised the successes and progress won on civil rights and racial justice while also—as he did in January 2008 for example—emphasizing that “better is not good enough. And we’ve still got a long way to go.” However, this is no longer the America Obama spoke of in 2008, and no longer the America Obama won over in 2008.
First, our country followed the election of our first Black president by electing Donald Trump, the man Ta-Nehisi Coates branded “the first white president.” Trump has sought not only to undo everything his predecessor accomplished and recreate a twisted version of our past that in actuality reflects his own deeply rooted pathologies, but he also sought to inflame white racial hatred in a way no modern president has. Concurrently, the Black Lives Matter movement has spent years bringing widespread awareness to the long-standing crisis of police abuse and violence, and has profoundly reshaped our society’s overall comprehension of the depth of anti-Blackness in the contemporary United States.
If he gets the opportunity to serve, Biden will be tasked with not just building upon the legacy of the president he once served, but with healing the wounds Trump has inflicted on our body politic. President Obama, in discussing our history and the life of Rep. Lewis, recognized that we are on a new frontier in our present.
After some introductory remarks and acknowledgements, Obama went straight into historian mode, echoing the words of our Constitution’s preamble. “This country is a constant work in progress,” Obama declared. “We were born with instructions: to form a more perfect union. Explicit in those words is the idea that we are imperfect; that what gives each new generation purpose is to take up the unfinished work of the last and carry it further than anyone might have thought possible.”
Obama’s emphasis on imperfection—not just the imperfection of the existing political system at the time our Constitution was written, but also the broader notion that perfection is not a plateau that can be reached but instead a goal to be eternally striven toward, demonstrates the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr, a 20th century American theologian and public intellectual whom the former president called “one of my favorite philosophers,” contended that all people—and thus all societies, each of which is but a collection of people—hold both good and evil within them.
Thus, even though America has done terrible things to its own people, Obama insists that it remains redeemable, perfectible, because its founding values—understood to be aspirational—centered on universal equality. Each generation does the work of making those aspirations a reality for every American.
Over a lifetime, but never more bravely than on Bloody Sunday in Selma, John Lewis did that work. On that day, he and his fellow marchers became, in Obama’s words, “victims in their own country of state-sponsored violence.” Our last real president contrasted the perpetrators with their victims, African Americans who “were asking for nothing more than to be treated like other Americans. Who were not asking for special treatment, just the equal treatment promised to them a century before, and almost another century before that.” In this depiction, Obama placed the protestors squarely within the centuries-long tradition of working to perfect our country.
The vision of America put forth by John Lewis and his compatriots in Selma and beyond became law with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Whenever The Man Who Lost The Popular Vote and the party he leads look to suppress the vote or otherwise undermine the legitimacy of our elections, they seek to undo the work that Rep. Lewis and others undertook to bring America nearer to being the country they envisioned. As Obama stated in the eulogy, this is the vision of America as it should have been all along, as it should be today, as it must be going forward.
America was built by John Lewises. He as much as anyone in our history brought this country a little bit closer to our highest ideals. And someday, when we do finish that long journey toward freedom; when we do form a more perfect union—whether it’s years from now, or decades, or even if it takes another two centuries—John Lewis will be a founding father of that fuller, fairer, better America.
John Lewis is another Founding Father—of what Adam Serwer in The Atlantic named “The Third American Republic.” Here—and elsewhere—Obama has broadened the pantheon of historical giants so that everyone sees themselves represented. We can contrast this with Trump’s determination to protect “heroes” whose legacy is specifically built on white supremacy. What Obama is doing represents both a more accurate version of our history and a smart way to build as all-encompassing a progressive coalition as possible.
In a parallel to Obama’s formulation, Serwer sets Lewis and the other giants—men and women—of the civil rights movement alongside the traditional founders who, in the years after 1776, created the First American Republic. Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and Frederick Douglass, Serwer notes, were the founders of the Second American Republic during and after the Civil War. What a perfect way to properly value Lewis’ invaluable contribution to our country. He is a Founding Father of the America we have not yet achieved, but which we will someday—and note that Obama spoke about “when” it would happen, not “if.”
But we must remember that America has not yet reached that destination. We did not get there in 1965, despite what the willfully blind or the disingenuous demagogues would have us think. Those of us who believe as John Lewis did are, right now, fighting exactly the same kind of enemies he fought, Obama explained, even if their names and tactics have changed.
Bull Connor may be gone. But today we witness with our own eyes police officers kneeling on the necks of Black Americans. George Wallace may be gone. But we can witness our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators. We may no longer have to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar in order to cast a ballot. But even as we sit here, there are those in power doing their darnedest to discourage people from voting—by closing polling locations, and targeting minorities and students with restrictive ID laws, and attacking our voting rights with surgical precision, even undermining the postal service in the run-up to an election that is going to be dependent on mailed-in ballots so people don’t get sick.
On one side are the heroes of the American story, those trying to perfect America: John Lewis and today’s generation of Black Lives Matter activists. On the other, the two men who in the 1960s personified the attempt to preserve the injustices of the Jim Crow South and—even though he wasn’t mentioned by name—Donald Trump, along with the rest of his Republican Party. They are the villains of the American story because they sought or seek to prevent our country from leaving behind its imperfections and moving forward on the journey toward freedom Obama described. During this campaign, Biden has also depicted our history in a similar fashion, as seen in a July 4 message that deftly tied together the American Revolution, BLM, the civil rights movement, the women’s suffrage movement, and LGBT+ equality activists.
xOur nation was founded on a simple idea: We’re all created equal. We’ve never lived up to it Ã¢ÂÂ but we’ve never stopped trying. This Independence Day, let’s not just celebrate those words, let’s commit to finally fulfill them. Happy #FourthOfJuly! pic.twitter.com/1WrATlx8Xl— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) July 4, 2020
Finally, Obama quoted from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ”Letter from a Birmingham Jail” to once again connect today’s Black Lives Matter to both the civil rights movement and to the Americans of 1776—revolutionaries who have all fought to make America more perfect. “By the thousands, faceless, anonymous, relentless young people, black and white, have taken our whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in the formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.” As Obama noted, “Dr. King said that in the 1960s. And it came true again this summer.”
Trump chose not to attend the funeral of John Lewis. Nor did he pay his respects in any meaningful, public way. When asked, in an Axios interview that was broadcast Monday on HBO, how he viewed Lewis’ legacy, the narcissist-in-chief’s response was a petulant one: “He didn’t come to my inauguration.” This was apparently so important he had to bring it up it twice within 20 seconds.
As for Obama’s eulogy, Trump called it “ridiculous” and “terrible” and, invoking a well-known racist trope, added that it was an “angry speech. It showed his anger there that people don’t see. He lost control.” The head racist among Trump’s White House minions, Stephen Miller, attacked the eulogy as “shockingly political.” By comparison, and only by comparison, white nationalist talking head Tucker Carlson made Miller look like a class act—which is far more shocking—when he characterized what Obama did thusly: “Imagine if some greasy politician showed up at your loved one’s funeral and started throwing around stupid partisan talking points.”
The story of American history that President Obama told has tremendous value not only because it speaks the truth, but also because it provides Democrats a powerful, compelling way to communicate their values to the American people in the current election cycle. His narrative neither whitewashes our country’s history by presenting the project of perfecting our union as having already been completed, as Trump did on July 4, for example. Nor did Obama reject our history as irrevocably tainted by the sins of violence and/or oppression committed against African Americans, Indigenous Americans, and all those living here who are not white, straight, cisgender male, and Christian. Instead, Obama embraces the idea of America as an ongoing project, one with a single, unifying, and fully inclusive historical narrative.
Obama’s America is a place where success in the fight for justice and equality means drawing on what has always been right with our country in order to defeat what has too long been wrong. His telling of our history connects what John Lewis called “this soul-wrenching, existential struggle” to the political and electoral struggle of 2020, which Joe Biden has likewise termed “the battle for the soul of this nation.” All of us can help the American people make similar connections, and insist that Obama’s America, John Lewis’ America, can also be everyone’s America. In doing so, we can help Vice President Biden, and progressive candidates from coast to coast, win the opportunity to get us that much closer to finally achieving the perfection of our union.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh’s Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)