After Obama’s Selma speech: Yes, we can!

By Jonathan Power

On Saturday President Barack Obama was at the commemoration ceremony to mark the 50th anniversary of the Selma March led by Martin Luther King which gave the push for legislation that ensured black people the right to vote. Obama’s speech was breathtaking oratory – surely one of the top three speeches in the American history of the last 150 years.

The fifteen minute speech was delivered without script or teleprompter. It ranged from history to philosophy, from politics to poetry. Every sentence was perfectly structured. The arguments were sharp and delivered with awesome authority and soaring elegance. Obama is the poet of prose.

For those who say the only significant thing about Obama’s presidency is that he is the first black to hold the post I tell them to watch this on YouTube. Obama’s speech should be remembered in 150 years time as much as is Lincoln’s speech of 150 years ago today.



It is quite appalling to see in Congress and the media people with far less brain power carping against him, resisting his legislation or mocking his foreign policy. Sometimes the criticism seems to be racially motivated even if subliminally.

To his credit ex-president George W. Bush (always reasonably good on race issues) joined Obama on the march. But the Republican leaders of Congress did not. And where were the foreign leaders who recently flooded to Paris to protest the murders of the staff of Charlie Hebdo?

Everyone will take away from that speech a sentence or argument that touches them. What struck me most was that it reminded us not to underestimate the politics of change.

Fifty years ago not only could no one have imagined that there would be a black president no one would have expected the rapid social and economic progress of black Americans. Their well-paid middle class has swelled producing CEOs of major companies like McDonalds and American Express. They are found in the top ranks of hospitals, banks, universities, government, diplomacy, the law, the military, film and theatre, not to mention politics.

It is true that too many have been left behind or put behind bars. But if this could be achieved then it is likely that in the next decades the poverty of poor blacks will also be greatly diminished now that Obama has restored the mighty engine of American economic growth, which is motoring at a pace far ahead of its European and Japanese partners.

I was on the Selma march.

It touched my life profoundly. It turned me at a young age into an optimist. I remain so today.

For 40 years I have written columns and books about the Third World and its development. I have watched those who say that bad leadership, a harsh environment and wasted aid could never make a dent in its poverty be proved wrong. The fact is the goal of halving the share of people living in extreme poverty has been met.

According to last week’s Economist, in 1990 36% of the world’s population lived in abject poverty. By 2010 it was down to 18%, and falling. So the number of very poor people has gone down from 1.9 billion to about 1 billion today. The World Bank has declared that its objective is to see the worst kind of poverty completely eliminated by 2030.

I have written about the village of Piloezinhos in the poverty stricken north east of Brazil once every ten years or so over 40 years. I’ve seen it move step by step from misery to successful growth. From no sanitation, no decent road, no health service and no school to where today it is a thriving village with flush toilets, a health centre with a full time doctor, a bustling primary school, a radio station and a good road to town.

Every visit I have made in recent years has refreshed my optimism about Third World development.

Some more statistics: In 1990 30% of the developing world lacked access to clean water. In 2008 the world reached the UN’s goal of halving that proportion to 15%. Today it is around 11%. In the same period maternal, infant and child deaths have plunged by 50%. In 1990 12 million children under five died each year. Today fewer than 7 million do. Global spending on vaccines has tripled since 2000. They are now saving three million children in developing countries annually.

There are new UN goals being formulated with a target date of 2030: to achieve universal access to clean water, to ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health services, to ensure that all girls and boys have access to good quality childhood development and pre-primary education, the ending of child labour and the reduction of the worst of poverty by another 50%.

We optimists can make this happen. In the words of Obama: “Yes, we can!”

Copyright: Jonathan Power