On Saturday afternoon, President Obama delivered an impassioned speech from the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Selma.
“In one afternoon 50 years ago so much of our turbulent history—the state of slavery and anguish of Civil War, the yoke of segregation and tyranny of Jim Crow, the death of four little girls in Birmingham, the dream of a Baptist preacher—all that history met on this bridge,” he said. “It was not a clash of armies but a clash of wills. A contest to determine the true meaning of America.”
“We gather here to honor the courage of ordinary Americans willing to endure [physical and psychological violence],” he continued. “Men and women who despite the gush of blood and splintered bone would stay true to their north star and keep marching towards justice.”
As expected, he used the occasion to discuss some of the race-related issues Americans still face today. However, when discussing the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, for instance, he conceded that the struggle is vastly different than what civil rights activists encountered 50 years ago.
“What happened in Ferguson may not be unique, but it’s no longer endemic, it’s no longer sanctioned by law or by custom and before the Civil Rights Movement, it most surely was,” he said. “If you think nothing’s changed [in America], ask someone who lived through the Selma or Chicago or Los Angeles of the 1950s.”
And yet, he cautioned, this does not necessarily mean that Americans should cease pursuing equal rights in the 21st century.
"We just need to open our eyes and our ears and our hearts to know that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us," he said. "We know the march is not yet over.”
Obama implied that efforts by Republican lawmakers to curtail voting rights and strip key provisions of the historic 1965 Voting Rights Act were turning back the clock on racial progress. Unsurprisingly, he described such efforts as regrettable and therefore urged members of Congress in attendance to go back to Washington and reauthorize it.
Meanwhile, Obama also chided Americans for not heading to the polls when they possess the fundamental right to do so.
“If every new voter suppression law was struck down today, we would still have here in America one of the lowest voting rates amongst free people,” he said. “What’s 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.
Finally, he ended his speech on a positive note, reminding attendees that social justice was attainable only through persistence and sacrifice.
“So much has changed in 50 years," he said. "But what has not changed is the imperative of citizenship…we know America is what we make of it.”