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Obama and “The Joshua Generation”

Here's the video from the first part of Sen. Barack Obama's speech in Selma.

A couple of things that jump out.

  • I like how he divides the civil rights movement into the "Moses Generation" and the "Joshua Generation."
    As great as Moses was, in spite of all that he did, leading a people out of bondage, he didn't cross over the river to see the Promised Land. God told him, "Your job is done. You'll see it. You'll be on the mountaintop and see what I've promised -- to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, what I promised to you, you can see that I will fulfill that promise. But you won't go there. We're going to leave it to the Joshua Generation to make sure it happens. There's still some battles that need to be fought, some rivers that need to be crossed."

    Like Moses, the task was passed on to those who might not have been as deserving, might not have been as courageous, who find themselves in front of the risks that their parents, their grandparents, their great-grandparents had taken. But that doesn't mean that they don't have a burden that they have to shoulder, that they don't have some responsibilities.

    The previous generation, the Moses Generation, pointed the way. They took us 90% of the way there, but we still have that 10% in order to cross over to the other side.

  • The other thing that's memorable about this speech is how he creates a narrative of the civil rights movement that includes his own family's history. I wrote about this in an earlier post and it's worth watching the video to hear the cadence of his voice and the response from the audience. It starts at 10:23 into the video and includes his salutory declaration, "I stand on the shoulders of giants" at 13:06.

    Here's the thing: every serious presidential candidate has a responsibility to paint a picture of him or herself that transcends a dry discussion of the policies he or she would advocate. The candidate needs to invoke certain qualities and emotions that are timeless; they need to paint a picture -- preferably using American icons -- that is instantly recognizable and then they need to place themselves in the foreground of that picture.

    All major candidates need to do this and some are more successful at it than others.

    • Clinton ("Boomer breaks the glass ceiling"),
    • Edwards ("Millworker's son makes good"),
    • Giuliani ("Rising to meet the challenge of 9/11"),
    • McCain (""Character forged by adversity").
    And then there's Obama who, with this speech, does it several ways.
    • He invokes his primary message ("Torch passed to a new generation") while putting it in the context of the Biblical story of the Israelites being freed from bondage ("Joshua Generation").
    • He gets extra points, during wartime, for identifying with a masculine warrior figure -- from the Bible, no less.
    • And lastly, he makes a bold move to consolidate his power amongst the very people that have long formed the base of any candidate that hopes to get the nomination of the Democratic party.
The guy is good at this -- very good.

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