Study Guide

A More Perfect Union Historical Context

By Barack Obama

Historical Context

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, men and women in jolly old England were the opposite of jolly when the government basically said, "Believe what we want you to believe or get out of town."

So they hopped on a boat and sailed west in search of freedom from religious persecution. They landed in the Americas, and before long, the country became a symbol of liberty and opportunity.

Granted, the United States wasn't even a thing at that point, and there would be many bloody and bitter days of fighting to make it happen. But it was deemed a worthy cause because all people deserved to practice their own religions and all people deserved to be equal.

And here's where the water gets a little murky.

Despite their efforts to escape persecution, the Pilgrims brought with them antiquated beliefs and traditions that gave white men more societal value than white women—and certainly more than Black people in general. So the word "equal"wasn't one size fits all.

And eventually, all that came to a head. When cultural differences in the north and south became heated, people started sweating like a dude wearing long johns in a sauna. The period of Reconstruction following the Civil War was one characterized by a desire for change, but also a resistance to it.

White men in power didn't want African-Americans, a population they had enslaved and oppressed for generations, to suddenly have the same rights and protections under the law. They took action to stop it, which led to white supremacist groups like the KKK, legislation that permitted discrimination and segregation, and laws that prevented Blacks from exercising their right to vote and make change.

These issues persisted throughout the turn of the century, and during the first half of the 1900s, white women made more strides for equality under the law than Blacks did. But the fact that both parties were still struggling spoke to a larger issue: the people who formed our nation believed it could be perfect, but we were not there yet. Really, we weren't even close—kind of like those Pinterest fails where people try to make snowman popsicles that end up looking like something out of a horror movie.

The second half of the 20th century went crazy with technological innovation and economic improvement, plus globalization. There was a lot of violence all over the world, and we were so concerned with bringing our "perfect union" to oppressed countries that we forgot to be concerned about all the issues we still had here.

It grew to a point where even talking about racism or inequality wasn't something you did in polite company. Even whispering "excuse me" with a red face, as if you'd burped in a quiet room, would not fix your faux pas if you happened to speak about the subject that shall not be named. And people had just had enough. It was time to clear up those waters and dive in because, just like centuries ago when Americans waged an entire war over a desire to have a voice, all people deserve to be equal.

Fast forward to 2007, and a historic moment with a Black presidential candidate. In fact, people couldn't stop talking about the fact that Obama was Black. On the surface, it might've looked like a win because at least people were talking about race. But no one was saying anything that could fix the problem—until Obama himself gave this speech about a more perfect union and the steps we had to take to get there.

Unfortunately, though, things didn't clear up like he had hoped. Obama did become the 44th president of the United States, but the ripples from his victory only lasted so long. (Take a peek at "Then and Now" for more information.)