The title of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has very little literal connection to its plot, but it still carries a great deal of symbolic weight. In her book that connection boils down to one scene, where Atticus explains to his son, “I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the backyard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit them, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
Similarly, my photo of a mockingbird relies upon that same symbolism and likewise has little to do with the rest of this post. Mockingbirds are best known for the habit of mimicking the songs of other birds and the sounds of other animals. Maybe this is what makes them precious or as Lee’s Miss Maudie asserts, “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy.”
Like Mockingbird, Selma is also in Alabama. In all of the hub-bub of our frenetic weekend I totally spaced on President Obama’s commemoration of the Selma March, fifty years ago last Saturday. I watched it later online and you can also, here or you can read the text of the speech here. I was greatly moved by Obama’s speech, which is one of his best ever. I think he really hit it out of the park with it. It was so much more than a commemoration of just “Bloody Sunday” or even the Civil Rights Movement as a whole. It was highly patriotic and a great liberal manifesto.
One of this speech’s aspects that the pundit class has lit itself up with is its supposed partisanship. Last month former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani launched a rather crude attack on Obama’s patriotism and part of this speech was devoted to the President’s answer. Obama isn’t an à la carte patriot as others would have him. He is not afraid to criticize that which he loves, he finds America neither faultless nor broken, but longs for, strives for and expects to have “A just America, a fair America, an inclusive America, and a generous America.”
From the Declaration of Independence to today, he put Selma on a continuum. One that has shown social progress over the years, but one that has much work left to do. He raised Ferguson as an example that more work is still needed, but he also used the country’s response to Ferguson as a sign of our progress, “What happened in Ferguson may not be unique, but it’s no longer endemic, or sanctioned by law and custom; and before the Civil Rights Movement, it most surely was.” Near the end of his speech, in a neat bit of wordplay, Obama ties together the history of our country’s moral imagination, from our founding fathers, to the Civil Rights Movement of the sixties, to today.
Because the single most powerful word in our democracy is the word “We.” We the People. We Shall Overcome. Yes We Can!