It was an extraordinary, memorable speech that President Bush delivered on Goree Island in Senegal Tuesday, a relatively short but eloquent reflection on the great evil of American slavery, how that evil was overcome and how there's a lesson in the experience for advancing the cause of liberty and justice in Africa today.
"At this place, liberty and life were stolen and sold," Bush said as he started his five-day stay in Africa. "Human beings were delivered and sorted and weighed and branded with the marks of commercial enterprises, and loaded as cargo on a voyage without return. One of the largest migrations of history was also one of the greatest crimes in history."
The crime persisted for more than two centuries, he noted as he detailed some of the suffering. But the "captives endured"; their spirit "did not break." He said "generations of oppression . . . could not crush the hope of freedom and defeat the purposes of God."
The president quoted Phyllis Wheatley, who in 1761 was taken from West Africa to be enslaved in America, and who wrote, "In every human breast, God has implanted a principle we call love of freedom. It is impatient of oppression and pants for deliverance."
Bush granted what any honest person must: the American journey toward justice "is not over." But he said the "destination is set," and that the American commitment to liberty compels the nation to help Africa in its own efforts to end dictatorial regimes, hunger, disease and war and to find prosperity and justice. He did not pretend the task would be anything but immensely difficult, but found hope in what he described as the human heart's refusal to tolerate evil.
"There is a voice of conscience and hope in every man and woman that will not be silenced — what Martin Luther King called a certain kind of fire that no water could put out . . . It was seen in the darkness here at Goree Island, where no chain could bind the soul. This untamed fire of justice continues to burn in the affairs of man, and it lights the way before us."
The words are inspiring, and while it is true that the rhetoric must be accompanied by precise technical calculation and cash and sweat and sacrifice to accomplish its ends, it is also true that the achievement of those ends would be far less likely without such rhetoric and the high ideals that shine through it.