Alex Steer

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The promised land again

301 words | ~2 min

There's been no shortage of analysis of Barack Obama's victory speech in blogs, broadcasts and newspapers today. As far as I can see, though, this aspect of the speech hasn't received much attention.

Speaking of the very immediate challenges facing America - `two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century' - Obama said this:

The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America – I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you – we as a people will get there.

This, on the surface, refers to the economic, social and diplomatic challenges of the future - and it's to the future that this campaign seems always to have looked. But the image, and slight aspects of the language, of this line from the first African-American president-elect have their roots in 1968, and these words:

I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

They are from Martin Luther King's final speech, given on April 3rd, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee, the day before he was assassinated. Last night's speech reminds us that this outcome did not come from nowhere, and pays a quiet but powerful tribute to the civil rights movement by putting its ethos at the heart of Obama's articulation of what the American future means.

In short, a brilliant piece of speech-writing.

# Alex Steer (05/11/2008)