In Selma, Obama Says ‘The Race Is Not Yet Won’

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U.S. President Barack Obama speaks in front of the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 2015 in Selma, Alabama.

Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

President Barack Obama stood in front of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on the 50th anniversary of the march that led to voting rights for blacks Saturday to tell Americans that “doors of opportunity swung open” yet the fight for equality isn’t over.

The nation’s first black president pointed to Ferguson, Missouri, where the Justice Department this week said it found patterns of racism as he stood at the foot of a symbol of the U.S. civil rights movement to encourage people to keep fighting for what they believe in.

“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,” Obama said in a fiery speech that aides said he largely penned himself. “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.”

The bridge was a fitting backdrop for Obama, who is trying to leave a legacy in his last two years as president of advancing the fortunes of middle-class Americans and especially on lifting the opportunities of young blacks and tackling racial inequality.

After his speech, Obama and his wife, Michelle, two daughters, Sasha, 16, and Malia, 13, and their grandmother, Marian Robinson, lined up beside veterans of the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, on March 7, 1965, that was met by Alabama police wielding clubs and whips to break up the crowd.

Police Confrontation

Police confronted the marchers “when we came to this point” U.S. Representative John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat, who suffered a skull fracture when state and local police moved on the crowd of marchers 50 years ago, told the president and his family when they reached the top of the bridge.

The marchers also included former President George W. Bush and his wife Laura, the Reverend Al Sharpton, and Attorney General Eric Holder. At one point, the throngs of marchers began to sing the civil-rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.”

“What an extraordinary opportunity, especially to have Malia and Sasha here,” Obama said. He thanked the Bushes for attending the historic anniversary.

Obama, who was 3 years old when demonstrators first scaled the bridge to push for voting rights for blacks, told the crowd earlier that the push for racial equality is not completed.

Equal Protection

“Citizens in Ferguson and New York and Cleveland just want the same thing young people here marched for: the protection of the law,” he said. “Together, we can address unfair sentencing, and overcrowded prisons, and the stunted circumstances that rob too many boys of the chance to become men, and rob the nation of too many men who could be good dads, and workers, and neighbors.”

He also said he “rejected the notion that nothing’s changed. 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.”

Obama acknowledged that he was a beneficiary of the civil rights movement like many other blacks, women, Latinos and others. But he told the crowd of about 40,000 who gathered under sunny skies that they now need to take the lead from the civil rights pioneers.

Love of Country

He also fired back at some of his critics, such as former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who’ve questioned his patriotism or his belief in American exceptionalism. The marchers 50 years ago, who faced down violent opposition to make the nation better for all its citizens, showed “what it means to love America,” he said.

“That’s what it means to believe in America,” Obama said. “That’s what it means when we say America is exceptional.”

He decried “airbrushed history or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American as others.”

On the dais before crossing the bridge, the Obamas joined hands with civil rights leaders and other elected officials.

Turning Point

The march, in which participants were beaten and bloodied, became a turning point in the U.S. civil rights movement and led to the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 five months later.

“Our country will never ever be the same because of what happened on this bridge,” Lewis told the crowd Saturday. “There’s still work yet to be done. Get out there and push and pull until we redeem the soul of America.”

Even with the progress made since then, signs of the past remain. The bridge Obama will cross over the Alabama River still bears the name of a Ku Klux Klan leader, and the city has effectively become re-segregated with 42 percent of its residents living in poverty. The infamous day became known as “Bloody Sunday.”

Obama’s motorcade traveled from an Air Force airstrip to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, passing by some of Selma’s poverty. People -- mostly black -- stood outside brick homes with broken windows. Obama passed the Plantation Inn and trailer parks along a highway designated as an “historic route.” His motorcade entered downtown over the bridge.

Voting Rights

The Voting Rights Act, which was signed into law only months after the march in Selma, also is coming under question in some states today. In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the law that mandated states and localities with a history of minority voter suppression get permission from the Justice Department to change voting laws.

House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, of Maryland, said he’s using the occasion to push for passage of a strengthened Voting Rights Act to restore its power.

Hoyer was among the approximately 100 members of Congress attending today’s commemoration. The group includes five Republicans from the Senate and 19 from the House, said Todd Stacy, a spokesman for Representative Martha Roby, an Alabama Republican. While House Speaker John Boehner wasn’t there, he will bestow the Congressional Gold Medal to Selma marchers at the Capitol, Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said. Obama signed the bill aboard Air Force One on the way to Selma. Lewis each year organizes a delegation of lawmakers to travel to Alabama for the march’s anniversary.

After criticism that no Republican leaders were attending, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California traveled to Selma for the commemoration.

‘Pettus Eight’

M.D. Reese and Lewis were the two members of the original “Pettus Eight” who participated in Saturday’s anniversary march. Amelia Boynton Robinson, 103, who was tear-gassed and beaten during the original march, lined up in a wheelchair at the head of the procession.

Only a few dozen people were marching Saturday. The bridge opens for the rest of the town Sunday.

U.S. Representative Terri Sewall, the Alabama Democrat, told the crowd that she wanted marchers to feel inspired by the event Saturday and the actions of the original marchers.

“We can not acknowledge how far we have come without acknowledging how far we need to go,” she said. “May we all leave Selma more inspired, inspired by those foot soldiers to keep fighting for their legacy of justice for all.”

Obama echoed that sentiment.

“Fifty years from Bloody Sunday, our march is not yet finished,” Obama said. “But we are getting closer. Two hundred and thirty-nine years after this nation’s founding, our union is not yet perfect. But we are getting closer. Our job’s easier because somebody already got us through that first mile. Somebody already got us over that bridge.”