Remembering Selma, Barack Obama, and Obama's Weird Selma Mythmaking

March 4th, 2014 7:41 PM

Today is the seventh anniverary of Barack Obama’s 2007 speech from the civil rights scene of Selma, Alabama. Many conservatives remember Hillary Clinton’s patronizing black-speak “I don't feel no ways tired” recitation from black minister James Cleveland.

But Obama’s Selma speech shamelessly invented his life story, and the media failed to call him on it. It was an early signal that honesty and accuracy were not high on the media’s list of values in that campaign.

In his book Barack Obama: The Story, Washington Post reporter-editor David Maraniss reported that Obama’s account of being separated from his father when he was two was “received myth, not the truth.” Maraniss explained Obama’s father was “married in name only. Within a month of the day Barry came home from the hospital, he and his mother were long gone from Honolulu,” as Ann Dunham returned to the mainland to attend the University of Washington.

In Obama’s mythical version, “the family breach did not occur until 1963, when his father left the island. That version of events is inaccurate in two ways. The date: his father had gone from Hawaii in June 1962, less than a year after Barry was born, not 1963. And the order: it was his mother who left Hawaii first.”

No one reported on this, or questioned Maraniss about it, never mind questioning Obama himself. Five years before, on March 4, 2007, Obama made a speech saluting the 1965 civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, and claimed his parents were inspired by Selma before he was born. “There was something stirring across the country because of what happened in Selma, Alabama, because some folks are willing to march across a bridge. So they got together and Barack Obama Jr. was born. So don’t tell me I don’t have a claim on Selma, Alabama. Don’t tell me I’m not coming home when I come to Selma, Alabama.”

This was a pretty bizarre claim for a man who was born in Hawaii and whose parents never had a real marriage, and were literally on different continents by the time of the Selma march of 1965. Selma didn’t bring his parents together; they were officially divorced in 1964, and Obama’s father left Harvard in 1964 and returned to Kenya with another white American woman, named Ruth Baker, and they married there in 1964. His mother married Lolo Soetoro in 1965. The real story in no way resembled Obama’s mythical narrative that Selma inspired two people to fall in love and conceive a future president.

Obama had no claim on Selma, Alabama.

Obama was never mocked for his shameless attempts at burnishing his legend.  NBC anchor Brian Williams could devote attention on three straight nights in June 2011 to how noncandidate Sarah Palin’s account of Paul Revere’s ride allegedly “differs with history,” but with candidate Obama in Selma, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell used this uncorrected clip: “Don’t tell me I don’t have a claim on Selma, Alabama. Don’t tell me I’m not coming home when I come to Selma, Alabama.”

On ABC, John Cochran said Obama “seemed to address accusations that he is not black enough because of his mixed ancestry,” and used the same clip. ABC’s Jake Tapper repeated the tactic in the morning, adding some gush: “Obama’s eloquent piety is seldom received better than in a church full of Democrats, especially black ones.”

On CBS, correspondent Gloria Borger at least made a small nod to reality, without correcting Obama. “In March of 1965, Barack Obama was just three years old. Even so, he says, he’s still the product of Selma.” Then came a clip of Obama: “This is the site of my conception. I am the fruits of your labor. I am the offspring of the movement.”

CBS This Morning offered a warm anniversary story from Selma on March 4, 2012, but no one explored Obama’s absurd claims of 2007. On the day of Obama’s second inauguration, the Post published a special inaugural section, where Post reporter Wil Haygood highlighted quotes from Obama’s Selma speech again—including “My very existence might not have been possible had it not been for some of the folks here today”— a claim now clearly debunked.

It was only one of several “cultural touchstones related to African-American history” greeting Obama’s second term, Haygood wrote, like the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the new movie on Lincoln.

[Includes excerpt from Collusion by Brent Bozell and Tim Graham]

Correction: Jake Tapper contacted me via e-mail to insist that under his “eloquent piety” comments, he did conclude by noting the future president's strange claim on Selma. At the end of his March 5 report was this: “Senator Barack Obama, who was born in 1961, at one point, credited the 1965 Selma march with his parents, a black African father and white Kansas mother, meeting and falling in love. Obama later said he was crediting the entire civil rights movement.”