In Selma, Alabama, a few days ago, Barack Obama spoke at the famous Brown AME Church to commemorate the 1965 March on Montgomery; more generally, to commemorate the whole civil rights movement. One theme in his talk was the distinction he drew between what he called the Moses and Joshua generations. Moses, referring broadly to the people who fought the good fight in the '60s -- Rosa Parks, MLK, Schwerner, all of them. It's on the shoulders of those giants that Obama and others of his generation -- today's Joshua generation -- stands as they aspire to great things. Obama freely admitted and acknowledged this great debt.
But it's not just the debt. Obama had a point to his mention of Moses and Joshua. In the Bible, Joshua was Moses's long-time apprentice, having gone up the mountain with him when he received the Ten Commandments. Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt (the "Exodus" from Egypt), to return to Israel; but he himself never reached. He appointed Joshua his successor as the leader of his people, and then died. So it was Joshua who led them back into Israel, thus finishing the job that Moses set out to do.
You'll excuse the necessarily sketchy account. But here was Obama's point: that the whole struggle for civil rights didn't end with the Moses generation of the 1960s. There's work left to do: registering people to vote, to begin with, just as in the 1960s if not on the same scale. (And indeed, during the commemoration in Selma, there was at least one desk I noticed draped with signs saying "Register to Vote"). There's work to be done, too, in education, in health care, and more. And as it was left to Joshua to bring his people back to Israel, it is left to Obama's Joshua generation to complete the work that the generation before them started.
It's a simple message, but on many levels a powerful one. There's the idea of continuing a struggle. There's the imagery of passing the torch to a new generation. There's a call to action. There's the idea of finding a passion and working at it. And you'll have other ways to read it, I'm sure.
In general, I'm no fan of Biblical references. I prefer the practical, the here and now, and leave God to the preachers thank you very much. But in this town, on this day, Obama knew he could not deliver a speech full of policy statements. (Though as a political junkie, I look forward to what he has to say about substantive issues of policy over the next 18 months). What was called for was the invocation of, a reminder of, the spirit of the 1960s. And that, Obama succeeded in delivering.
At first blush -- and that's all this was, I would certainly not base a decision to vote on this one speech -- at first blush, this is an impressive candidate for President of the US.
Yet as I drove away from Selma that night, I was not thinking of Obama and the 1960s so much. I was thinking, as I often have on this trip, about India. Who calls to the Joshua generation in India? Who speaks of the work that's left to us to finish by the giants of the past -- Gandhi and Patel, Nehru and Azad, Tilak and Ambedkar?
Who, do you think?
Or maybe we need to start with a more basic question: is there work left to finish at all? What, do you think?