Fact Check

Say What, Barack?

Rumor: Editorial identifies anachronisms in Barack Obama's 2007 Selma speech.

Published Mar 3, 2008

Claim:   Editorial identifies anachronisms in Barack Obama's 2007 Selma speech.


Example:   [Hollrah, 2007]

Tuning in to C-Span recently, I found myself listening to a speech by Senator Barrack Hussein Obama, Jr. He was standing in the pulpit of a black church in Selma, Alabama, and as I studied the body language of the dozen or so black ministers standing behind the senator, I couldn't help but be reminded of the little head-bobbing dolls that people used to place in the rear windows of their 1957 Chevrolets. If their reactions are any indication, the new Schlickmeister of the Democrat Party is actually a pretty accomplished public speaker. However, as he spoke, I found my bull— alarm going off, repeatedly. But I couldn't quite figure out why until I actually read excerpts of his speech several days later. Here's part of what he said: "... something happened back here in Selma, Alabama. Something happened in Birmingham that sent out what Bobby Kennedy called, "ripples of hope all around the world." Something happened when a bunch of women decided they were going to walk instead of ride the bus after a long day of doing somebody else's laundry, looking after somebody else's children.

[Click here to expand text].


Origins:   On 4 March 2007, former president Bill Clinton, along with then-senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama made an appearance in Selma, Alabama, to commemorate the 42nd anniversary of

"Bloody Sunday": the 7 March 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march for voting rights that ended with several hundred civil rights marchers' being assaulted with billy clubs and tear gas wielded by state troopers and deputies at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the outskirts of Selma.

As part of that day's ceremonies, Senator Obama delivered a speech from the pulpit of the Brown Chapel A.M.E. church (the starting point for the "Bloody Sunday" march) praising civil rights achievements (such as the Selma marches) as having helped pave the way for his campaign to become the first black president.

An editorial by Paul R. Hollrah published a week later attempted to take Senator Obama to task for fudging chronology in order to make a personal connection between key civil rights events and his forebears. Senator Obama's speech was misleadingly ambiguous in some places, but it wasn't quite as anachronistic as made out in the editorial quoted above.

One of the editorial's criticisms is that:

Obama went on to tell his audience that the Kennedys, Jack and Bobby, decided to do an airlift. They would bring some young Africans over so that they could be educated and learn all about America. His grandfather heard that call and sent his son, Barrack Obama, Sr., to America.

The problem with that scenario is that, having been born in August 1961, the future senator was not conceived until sometime in November 1960. So, if his African grandfather heard words that "sent a shout across oceans," inspiring him to send his goat-herder son to America, it was not Democrat Jack Kennedy he heard, or his brother Bobby, it was Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

One might reasonably infer from the wording of Barack Obama's speech that he was speaking of President John F. Kennedy, since he invoked the name Kennedy immediately after mentioning the White House:

What happened in Selma, Alabama and Birmingham also stirred the conscience of the nation. It worried folks in the White House who said, "You know, we're battling Communism. How are we going to win hearts and minds all across the world? If right here in our own country, John, we're not observing the ideals set forth in our Constitution, we might be accused of being hypocrites." So the Kennedy's decided we're going to do an air lift. We're going to go to Africa and start bringing young Africans over to this country and give them scholarships to study so they can learn what a wonderful country America is.

This would indeed be an anachronism, since JFK did not assume that office until 1961 and therefore could not have been, as President, instrumental in funding a program that brought students such as Barack Obama's father from Kenya to the University of Hawaii in 1959. However, it is true that Senator John F. Kennedy, shortly before being elected president, arranged a grant for a scholarship program to bring Kenyan students to American colleges:

In his command of the US political stage over the past year, Barack Obama has inspired many a comparison to John F Kennedy. Both young senators brought a lofty message, an appealing young family and a movie-star aura to the presidential race. But the two men forged a less known link — before Obama was even born.

The bond began with Kenyan labour leader Tom Mboya, an advocate for African nationalism who helped his country gain independence in 1963. In the late 1950s, Mboya was seeking support for a scholarship program that would send Kenyan students to US colleges — similar to other exchanges the US backed in developing nations during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Mboya appealed to the state department. When that trail went cold, he turned to then-senator Kennedy.

Kennedy, who chaired the senate subcommittee on Africa, arranged a $100,000 grant through his family's foundation to help Mboya keep the program running.

"It was not a matter in which we sought to be involved," Kennedy said in an August 1960 senate speech. "Nevertheless, Mr Mboya came to see us and asked for help, when none of the other foundations could give it, when the federal government had turned it down quite precisely. We felt something ought to be done."

Although Mboya did raise money (from a variety of contributors) for scholarships for Kenyan students during a trip he made to the United States in 1959, it was not until July 1960 that he met John F. Kennedy and persuaded the senator to contribute $100,000 to his cause through the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation. Technically, therefore, Barack Obama's father did not come to the United States with money directly provided by the Kennedy family (as Barack Sr. had arrived in the U.S. the year before, benefiting from funds previously raised by Tom Mboya), but he did come to the U.S. as part of an ongoing program that the Kennedy family helped fund.

Obama told his audience that, because some folks had the courage to "march across a bridge" in Selma, Alabama, his mother, a white woman from Kansas, and his father, a black Muslim from Africa, took heart. It gave them the courage to get married and have a child. The problem with that characterization is that Barack Obama, Jr. was born on August 4, 1961, while the first of three marches across that bridge in Selma didn't occur until March 7, 1965, at least five years after Obama's parents met.

Senator Obama might be considered guilty of engaging in little pandering here by trying to imply a direct line between the 1965 Selma, Alabama, marches and his personal background (since he was speaking in Selma at the time). However, the tenor of his speech was how the overall growth and progress of the Civil Rights movement affected the outlook of blacks (including his family), both in the U.S. and abroad. That movement did not start with the 1965 marches in Selma; it was a process that began and grew across the years, including among its landmark events the 1955-56 bus boycott in Montgomery (which occurred several years before Barack Obama was born, and before his father left Africa for the U.S.) and the 1963 anti-segregation protests in Birmingham — all of which (along with the Selma marches) took place in Alabama, and all of which were referenced by Senator Obama in his speech that day:

Yet something happened back here in Selma, Alabama. Something happened in Birmingham that sent out what Bobby Kennedy called, "Ripples of hope all around the world." Something happened when a bunch of women decided they were going to walk instead of ride the bus after a long day of doing somebody else's laundry, looking after somebody else's children. When men who had PhD's decided that's enough and we're going to stand up for our dignity. That sent a shout across oceans so that my grandfather began to imagine something different for his son. His son, who grew up herding goats in a small village in Africa could suddenly set his sights a little higher and believe that maybe a black man in this world had a chance.

What happened in Selma, Alabama and Birmingham also stirred the conscience of the nation.

As for accuracy, Mr. Hollrah erred himself at the end of his piece by invoking the myth of "Al Gore's claim of having invented the Internet" (as well as consistently misspelling the Senator's first name as "Barrack").

Last updated:   9 March 2015


    Dobbs, Michael.   "Obama Has Overstated Kennedys' Aid to His Dad."

    Los Angeles Times.   30 March 2008   (p. A31).

    Radelat, Ana.   "Selma March Raises Political Stakes for Obama, Clinton."

    USA Today.   2 March 2007.

    Schor, Elana.   "The Other Obama-Kennedy Connection."

    The Guardian.   10 January 2008.

    Associated Press.   "Obama, the Clintons Turn Selma Marches into Campaign Event."

    International Herald Tribune.   4 March 2007.

    Time.   "The African Question."

    29 August 1960.

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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