Selma: Addressing Some Swiss Students’ Questions…

This post is part of an archived series of blogs called The LeVine Line, written by former Ambassador Suzan G. LeVine during her time at U.S. Embassy Bern.

8 March 2015

Here’s the link to watch the speech.

A couple of weeks ago, I visited Gymnasium Oberaargau (or Gym/O) in Langenthal.  As I’ve said many times, students ask phenomenal and important questions.  Sure enough, one of the questions posed to me was whether I believed racism was on the rise in America – especially since Barack Obama became President.  The short answer is no.  (I gave a somewhat longer answer in the assembly).

It seems like I’m not the only one getting that question.  I believe the young man’s name was Efe who posed the question.  Well – Efe – and all of your fellow students across Switzerland and Liechtenstein – I highly recommend watching President Obama’s speech that he gave at Selma on March 7th, 2015 to hear the President’s answer to your question.

About halfway into the speech, he shares that “Just this week, I was asked whether I thought the Department of Justice’s Ferguson report shows that, with respect to race, little has changed in this country.  And I understood the question; the report’s narrative was sadly familiar.  It evoked the kind of abuse and disregard for citizens that spawned the Civil Rights Movement.  But I rejected the notion that nothing’s changed.  What happened in Ferguson may not be unique, but it’s no longer endemic.  It’s no longer sanctioned by law or by custom.  And before the Civil Rights Movement, it most surely was.”

And that’s just one of the many sections of the speech that make it worth watching.

Perhaps the best speech I’ve ever heard President Obama give, it was honest, human, bold, lyrical, forceful, and, well, truly exquisite.  Every day in my job I am more humbled and honored than the previous day to have the opportunity to serve my country and be the President’s personal representative to Switzerland and Liechtenstein.  When I watched this speech this morning, that feeling ratcheted up beyond measure.  Here are some of my other favorite quotes from the speech.

  • the single-most powerful word in our democracy is the word “We.”  “We The People.”  “We Shall Overcome.”  “Yes We Can.” That word is owned by no one.  It belongs to everyone.  Oh, what a glorious task we are given, to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.
  • It’s the idea held by generations of citizens who believed that America is a constant work in progress; who believed 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 is right, to shake up the status quo.  That’s America.
  • We know the march is not yet over.  We know the race is not yet won.  We know that reaching that blessed destination where we are judged, all of us, by the content of our character requires admitting as much, facing up to the truth.
  • “We the People…in order to form a more perfect union.”  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” These are not just words.  They’re a living thing, a call to action, a roadmap for citizenship and an insistence in the capacity of free men and women to shape our own destiny.
  • There’s nothing America can’t handle if we actually look squarely at the problem.  And this is work for all Americans, not just some.
  • But 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 they loved this country so much that they’d risk everything to realize its promise. That’s what it means to love America.  That’s what it means to believe in America.  That’s what it means when we say America is exceptional. For we were born of change.  We broke the old aristocracies, declaring ourselves entitled not by bloodline, but endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights.
  • We respect the past, but we don’t pine for the past.  We don’t fear the future; we grab for it.  America is not some fragile thing.  We are large, in the words of Whitman, containing multitudes.  We are boisterous and diverse and full of energy, perpetually young in spirit.

They are favorites because they inspire, they challenge, and they energize.  The speech set high expectations for what we can do as citizens – and I certainly feel that, as a nation – we can and will meet and exceed those expectations.  For me, it also gave even more gravity and purpose to our public service!

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the speech!  Feel free to share on