America’s racial history “still casts its long shadow upon us,” President Barack Obama said Saturday as he stood in solidarity and remembrance with civil-rights activists whose beatings by police a half-century ago galvanized much of the nation against racial oppression and hastened passage of historic voting rights for minorities.
Tens of thousands of people joined to commemorate the “Bloody Sunday” march of 1965 and take stock of the struggle for equality.
Under a bright sun, the first black U.S. president praised the figures of the civil-rights era, a movement that helped him break the ultimate racial barrier in political history with his ascension to the highest office. He called them “warriors of justice” who pushed America closer to a more perfect union.
“So much of our turbulent history — the stain of slavery and anguish of civil war, the yoke of segregation and tyranny of Jim Crow, the death of four little girls in Birmingham, and the dream of a Baptist preacher — met on this bridge,” Obama told the crowd before taking a symbolic walk across part of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where the 1965 march erupted into police violence.
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“It was not a clash of armies but a clash of wills, a contest to determine the meaning of America,” Obama said. He was 3 at the time of the march.
A veteran of that clash, Rep. John Lewis, who was brought down by police truncheons that day in 1965 and suffered a skull fracture, exhorted the crowd to press on in the quest for racial justice.
“Get out there and push and pull until we redeem the soul of America,” said Lewis, 74. He was the youngest and is the last survivor of the Big Six civil-rights activists, a group led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that had the greatest impact on the movement.
“Our country will never be the same because of what happened on this bridge,” Lewis said.
Joining Obama on Saturday was former President George W. Bush, who signed the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act in 2006, along with more than 100 members of Congress. About two dozen of them were Republicans, including the House majority leader, Kevin McCarthy of California. While sitting on the stage, Bush made no remarks but rose to applaud Obama. The two men hugged afterward.
Also in attendance was Peggy Wallace Kennedy, a daughter of the late George Wallace, the Alabama governor who once vowed “segregation forever.”
Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., did not come, nor did most Republican presidential candidates, who were in Iowa campaigning. But the Republican-led Congress voted to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the “foot soldiers” of Bloody Sunday as “an expression of our affection and admiration for those who risked everything for their rights,” as Boehner put it.
Several prominent Democrats were missing too. Former President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, who is preparing to run for the White House next year, were in Miami for an event sponsored by the Clinton Global Initiative.
The Selma Fire Department estimated that the crowd reached 40,000.
The walk progressed under the bold letters on an arch, identifying the bridge named after Pettus, a Confederate general, senator and Ku Klux Klan leader.
Obama, his wife, Michelle, and their two daughters walked about a third of the way across, accompanied by Lewis, who has given fellow lawmakers countless tours of this scene. Bush, his wife, Laura, and scores of others came with them before a larger crowd followed.
Two years after King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, the Bloody Sunday march became the first of three aiming to reach Montgomery, Ala., to demand an end to discrimination against black voters and all such victims of segregation.
The events of March 7, 1965, proved a turning point in the civil-rights movement, recently depicted in the movie Selma. When 600 demonstrators embarking on a 50-mile march to Montgomery for voting rights crossed the bridge, Alabama state troopers and Sheriff Jim Clark’s posse attacked with billy clubs and tear gas.
Scenes of troopers beating marchers shocked the nation, emboldening leaders in Washington to pass the Voting Rights Act five months later.
On his way to Selma, Obama signed the law awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to participants in the three marches, the last of which brought protesters all the way to Montgomery.
‘The race is not yet won’
The shadow of enduring discrimination touched the event as Obama addressed his government’s investigation of the Ferguson Police Department in Missouri. The investigation, he said, “evoked the kind of abuse and disregard for citizens that spawned the civil-rights movement.”
“What happened in Ferguson may not be unique,” he said, “but it’s no longer endemic or sanctioned by law and custom. And before the civil-rights movement, it most surely was.”
The Justice Department concluded this past week that Ferguson had engaged in practices that discriminated against the city’s largely black population. The department also declined to prosecute the white officer who fatally shot an unarmed black 18-year-old last year, sparking days of violent protests and marches.
“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. “We know the march is not over yet, we know the race is not yet won. We know reaching that blessed destination where we are judged by the content of our character requires admitting as much.”
Yet, he said, “if you think nothing’s changed in the past 50 years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or L.A. of the ’50s. Ask the female CEO who once might have been assigned to the secretarial pool if nothing’s changed. Ask your gay friend if it’s easier to be out and proud in America now than it was 30 years ago.
“To deny this progress — our progress — would be to rob us of our own agency, our responsibility to do what we can to make America better.”
This report includes material from The Associated Press and The New York Times.