President Obama gave what many consider the best speech of his career at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., 50 years after Bloody Sunday. Yet some in the LGBT community seemed to notice only one thing — his mention of gay rights.
The speech was a history lesson and a clarion call to move into the future together. He said, “Because Selma shows us that America is not the project of any one person. Because the single most powerful word in our democracy is the word ‘We.’ We the people. We Shall Overcome. Yes We Can. It 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.”
He spoke to all of us when he said, “The American instinct that led these young men and women to pick up the torch and cross this bridge is the same instinct that moved patriots to choose revolution over tyranny… 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’s right and shake up the status quo.”
Americans do stand up for what we believe. Whether at the Edmund Pettus Bridge or in the 1960s in Washington, D.C. and Kent State rallying against the Vietnam War or today with those who ‘Occupy’ the streets to protest policies leading to financial inequality or the killing of unarmed black men in Ferguson and Staten Island. Obama said, “We honor those who walked so we could run. We must run so our children soar. And we will not grow weary. For we believe in the power of an awesome God, and we believe in this country’s sacred promise.”
We have made great strides in our lifetime but the work to form a more ‘perfect union’ goes on. Congressman John Lewis said, “There’s still work left to be done. Get out there and push and pull until we redeem the soul of America.”
The fight for voting rights goes on. We must stand together to ensure we don’t move backwards, which we see happening in too many states and localities. It is unbelievable that there is even a question as to voting rights, but there is. We have seen great gains in rights for women but the country didn’t pass the Equal Rights Amendment and still refuses to explicitly include women in the Constitution. We see amazing gains in the rights of LGBT Americans and I believe the Supreme Court will soon make same-sex marriage legal across the nation. Yet many cities and states are working to pass legislation sanctioning discrimination against LGBT people.
So I was proud when Obama included us in his litany of rights that have been won, and mentioned battles that have been fought. But as Jerame Davis, executive director of Pride at Work posted on Facebook, “In June, when we celebrate Pride, will the headline be, “Obama invokes African-Americans, Latinos, women, and the AAPI communities in Pride speech? No, that headline will be all about us.” Our community must be more inclusive. While our struggle for civil and human rights differs from that of the African-American community and that of women, we all face the reality while the laws change, many people’s attitudes and actions don’t. That is the fight we must face together.
When John Lewis speaks out in Selma and says the fight for African-American equality isn’t over we should say amen and stand with him to continue that fight. When the Latino community fights for the rights of immigrants to get the chance to work and live here safely and earn the right to become citizens we need to stand beside them. Only then can we continue to expect all of them to stand beside us as our fight for civil and human rights goes on. We are one people.
In June, when the LGBT community celebrates Pride, let us ask the president to mention every other group still struggling to gain their rights in his Pride speech and all our leaders should do the same. We are in this struggle together.
Peter Rosenstein is a Democratic Party and LGBT activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.