WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama joined nearly 100 members of Congress in Selma, Alabama, on Saturday for the 50th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday" -- a watershed moment of the civil rights movement -- where he honored the men and women who stood their ground in a violent confrontation with police at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
"We gather here to honor the courage of ordinary Americans willing to endure billy clubs and the chastening rod, tear gas and the trampling hoof; men and women who despite the gush of blood and splintered bone would stay true to their North Star and keep marching toward justice," Obama said in a soaring speech that addressed race and civil rights.
The president hailed Selma as a city of extreme importance to America's history -- on par with wartime settings of Concord, Lexington and Gettysburg, and places where innovation took great strides such as Kitty Hawk and Cape Canaveral. And he paid deference to the foot soldiers who sparked a movement: Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), Joseph Lowery, Hosea Williams, Amelia Boynton, Diane Nash, Ralph Abernathy, C.T. Vivian, Andrew Young and Fred Shuttlesworth, among others.
"What they did here will reverberate through the ages," Obama said. "Not because the change they won was preordained, not because their victory was complete, but because they proved that nonviolent change is possible; that love and hope can conquer hate."
In attendance for the event were Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., and Lewis, who rallied alongside the civil rights leader and still bears visible scars from his involvement in the marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Joining them at the famed bridge were thousands of citizens, civil rights activists and politicians, including former President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura.
Obama invoked a scathing Department of Justice report on the city of Ferguson, Missouri, which detailed gross misconduct against its citizens, to reject the notion that racism was no longer an issue in America.
"We don’t need the Ferguson report to know that’s not true," he said. "We just need to open our eyes, and ears, and hearts, to know that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us. We know the march is not yet over, the race is not yet won, and that reaching that blessed destination where we are judged by the content of our character -- requires admitting as much."
But he noted that race relations in the country had come a long way since Selma, pointing to major progress in gender and marriage equality. "What happened in Ferguson may not be unique, but it’s no longer endemic, or sanctioned by law and custom; and before the civil rights movement, it most surely was," he said.
Obama also took direct aim at Congress for failing to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act, one of the major achievements of the civil rights movement that arguably owes its existence to the confrontation in Selma. Republicans on the Hill stand broadly opposed to renewing the law, with no signs of bringing it up for a vote.
"How can that be?" Obama asked. "The Voting Rights Act was one of the crowning achievements of our democracy, the result of Republican and Democratic effort. President Reagan signed its renewal when he was in office. President Bush signed its renewal when he was in office. One hundred Members of Congress have come here today to honor people who were willing to die for the right it protects. If we want to honor this day, let these hundred go back to Washington, and gather four hundred more, and together, pledge to make it their mission to restore the law this year."
He further lamented apathy towards voting in the United States, drawing contrast with the tremendous amount of blood spilled for the right to cast a ballot.
"What is our excuse today for not voting? How do we so casually discard the right for which so many fought? How do we so fully give away our power, our voice, in shaping America’s future?" he asked.
Obama closed by urging young Americans to learn from Lewis, whom the president called one of his heroes, by fearlessly taking up the march for progress.
"You are America. Unconstrained by habits and convention. Unencumbered by what is, and ready to seize what ought to be," he said. "For everywhere in this country, there are first steps to be taken, and new ground to cover, and bridges to be crossed. And it is you, the young and fearless at heart, the most diverse and educated generation in our history, who the nation is waiting to follow."