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15 Years Later: A look back at the “More Perfect Union” speech

15 Years Later, a look back at the “More Perfect Union” speech by Valerie Jarrett

When then-Senator Obama delivered a speech titled “A More Perfect Union” 15 years ago today, it became known simply as the “speech on race.”

The speech came during the most heated moment of the 2008 campaign when videos began circulating of old sermons that Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, had given denouncing the United States government.

It’s remembered today as a moment when Barack Obama shared a courageously personal and honest explanation about the role race has placed in our country’s history, his experiences as a Black man, and the story of Ashley Baia, a field organizer in our campaign in South Carolina. The speech resonated deeply with the American people. After it was finished, many commentators noted they’d never seen a politician speak so eloquently on race, and it offered a preview of the direct and open manner in which Barack Obama would tackle the challenges he would face as president. In the weeks that followed, the campaign printed up full copies and handed them out to voters door to door.

Michelle Obama, her eyes watering with tears and her mouth pursed, sits in a room full of people. Bright spotlights are on the back wall. Everyone looks dressed in formal suit attire.

(L-R) Valerie Jarrett, Michelle Obama, and Marty Nesbitt watch then-Senator Obama's speech on race on March 18, 2008. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images)

But the decision to give the speech was fraught with uncertainty. It came directly from the candidate, who was willing to risk losing and said, “if I want the American people to vote for me as president, they have to really understand who I am.” It was a defining moment as he demonstrated his willingness to trust the American people with his truth.

There’s one story from that speech that continues to embody the spirit of our work at the Obama Foundation. At the end of the address, Senator Obama told a story about Ashley Baia, a young white woman who organized for the Obama campaign in South Carolina, and an elderly Black man who came to a small gathering at a library to hear me speak. Take a minute to watch:

Obama Speech: 'A More Perfect Union'

“I am here, because of Ashley.”

Later, I recruited Ashley to join me at the White House and have had the pleasure of watching her grow into an extraordinary leader over the years. She embodies the values that so many 44 alumni and alumni of the Obama Foundation programs carry forward today – a willingness to devote yourself to a cause greater than yourself, the ability to meet a diverse group of people where they are, and the leadership skills to turn hope into action.

The story about Ashley reflects so much of the promise of the 2008 campaign. It’s easy to look back after President Obama’s eight years in the White House, and forget how little precedent there was for his election. His 43 predecessors were white, and at the time, he was the only Black member of the United States Senate, the third Black person elected to that body since Reconstruction. He was elected president because millions of folks who were hopeful about his campaign engaged with one another and committed to take action together.

A piece of paper with one half tan-colored and the other dark blue. The words "We the People in Order to Form A More Perfect Union" are at the top of one side, while the other has what appears to be a speech printed on it from the perspective of Barack Obama.

As then-Senator Obama noted in his remarks, no single campaign or president is enough to overcome the legacy of slavery or Jim Crow. Much work remains to address the systemic barriers and discrimination that too often persist today. But real progress has been achieved. Building on that progress will require new generations of citizens willing to pick up the baton and take action themselves.

That work requires a willingness to forge connections across boundaries like the one shared more than 15 years ago in a South Carolina library, and is the focus of the Obama Foundation, where our mission is to inspire, empower, and connect people to change their world.