Friday, June 1, 2012

Barack Obama's "A More Perfect Union" Speech Analysis

Sources:
Clark, D. and Harold, S. The African American Odyssey
Obama, B. (2008) The Great Speeches of Barack Obama Rockville: Arc Manor LLC.
Skog, J., Ivers, G. (2006) The Dred Scott Decision . Bloomington: Compass Point Books.
Terrence, W. (2004) The Civil Rights Movement: Struggle and Resistance Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.
Walker, C.  Smithers G. (2009) The Preacher and the Politician: Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama and Race in America. Florida: University of Virginia Press.

‘A More Perfect Union’ is a speech that was delivered by the then US Senator for Chicago, Barack Hussein Obama, in response to criticism and condemnation that was hurled at him due to his association with Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Reverend Wright had come under attack from many corners of American society due to what people termed as ‘anti-American’ sentiments that Reverend Wright shared with his congregants, the most prominent of them being Senator Obama. (Obama, B. 2008).

Senator Obama, who was then running for presidential nomination by the Democratic Party, was accused of tolerating anti-American sentiments. People, politicians and academics wondered how he could put up with such sentiments yet he hoped to lead a society as diverse ethnically and racially as America. This speech, ‘A More Perfect Union’, was Senator Obama’s response to these accusations.

The speech has been hailed by many people as being the one that won him not only the Democratic Party nomination but also the U.S Presidency. For instance, the speech played a role in prompting New Mexico governor Bill Richardson to back Mr. Obama for the Democratic nomination. Governor Richardson was courted by both Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton as he was America’s only Latino governor and as such, whoever he supported may have won most of the Latino votes. Many people, including rivals in the Republican camp, called the speech ‘brutally honest’ and significant in American history, especially on the subject of race relations. For instance, then Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee (R) praised the speech by saying, “Mr. Obama handled this as well as anybody else could” and called the speech ‘a very historic speech’. John McCain called the speech ‘an excellent speech and an important statement that he (Mr. Obama) had to make at the time.”

The Declaration of Independence was, according to Mr. Obama, ‘signed but ultimately unfinished’. With this, he drew the contrast between the putting of pen to paper and the implementation of the ideals that were set down in the document itself. The union that the founding fathers had formed, was one in which people of all races and creed could feel a part of. Whether of Anglo-Saxon, Irish, German, Asian, Asian, Native American or even African American decent, the Declaration of Independence was meant for all and sundry who had found a home in the United States to actually feel at home. However, this turned out to be in theory only for in practice, things were very different, especially for African Americans.

However, it was ironic that despite the signing of the document, Americans of African decent were still not considered full Americans. They were held under slavery and bondage in states all over the United States, especially those below the Mason-Dixon divide. How, then, could we have a ‘more perfect union’ when some of this country’s citizens did not enjoy the rights enjoyed by others, by the mere fact that their skin color was different from everybody else’s?

It would take a lot of blood, sweat and tears to free the black man who, even today, can be argued to still be not totally free in American society. This struggle started with such things as the Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831. Efforts such as this, which were expected to receive support from the American government, which claimed to be a ‘perfect union’, were termed as illegal and condemned by American society. The Dred Scott decision of 1857 in which an African American man walked into the U.S Supreme Court a free man and left it a slave shows that the Declaration of Independence had indeed given Americans of African descent a raw deal (Scog, J. 2006). The hypocrisy of this could also be seen in the situation of Thomas Jefferson, the American president who fathered children with his African American slaves yet would not grant the black people of America freedom from slavery.

Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation was the first visible effort from the American government that showed the white people that it wanted equal rights between white people and black people. This would lead to a situation which would led president Lincoln to call an endeavor that was harder than what first president George Washington had faced. This means that Washington’s task had been to only form the original 13 states of America. However, Lincoln’s task would be to prevent the Southern states from breaking away from a union which was now much larger than the original 13 states. Breakaway would have shown to the world that the United States was actually a failed state. This is because the Civil War threatened to split the Union into two. This split was not on matters affecting the economy, not on how the country should be governed but on the question of whether black people, most of whom had been born and raised not in Africa but in America, deserved to be granted the full rights that other American citizens enjoyed.

And even though the Union Army won against the pro-slavery confederates, the black people in America were still not free. Jim Crow laws in the southern states saw to it that black people were viewed as sub standard, lesser humans. For instance, it was the Jim Crow laws that led to the establishment of separate facilities (like sporting centers and diners) for white people and black people. The facilities that were meant for black people were usually of a lower quality than those meant for white people. The efforts that African Americans made against the white establishment in the south were quashed by terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.

The next major step would be the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s that was led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Other people such as the radical Malcolm X and Rev. Jesse Jackson also played a significant role in the movement. Many people, including Dr. King, would lose their lives fighting for what was rightfully theirs – a claim to a share of the American life free of harassment and full of justice and equality for all. (Terrence, W. 2004)

It is questions like these that may have left Mr. Obama to question if the founding fathers really intended for America to be ‘a more perfect union’, why did African Americans have to struggle so hard for justice and equality in the only place they knew to be home? If America was ‘a more perfect union’, then the states that the government took to ensure that African Americans enjoyed the same privileges as people of other races were not felt by the black people themselves.

By saying that ‘the document was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished’, Mr. Obama was referring to these injustices that African Americans experienced and the blood, sweat and tears that had to be shed to at least enjoy some semblance of freedom and equality.

Even though Mr. Obama’s win in the 2008 U.S Presidential elections was a milestone in making America ‘a more perfect union’, the verdict is still out there as to whether America is as perfect a union as the founding fathers intended it to be. While sentiments like Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s reflect the imperfection of this union, there are numerous arguing points that can be used to show that the United States is a perfect union. Such things as the top government positions held by African Americans (such as Condoleezza Rice’s tenure as secretary of state) show that African Americans are now enjoying more rights that they were half a century ago. (Walker, G. 2009).