During a moving and far-reaching speech on Saturday, President Barack Obama pushed Congress to fight for the restoration of a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, condemned the long shadow of racism that still haunts the nation, and celebrated economic and social gains for people of color in America since the pivotal civil rights marches took place in Selma, Ala., 50 years ago.
The nation’s first black president and his family were in Selma to commemorate "Bloody Sunday" on the 50th anniversary of the day police attacked marchers demonstrating for voting rights. The president and first lady Michelle Obama were joined on the dais by former President George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush before a crowd of about 40,000—almost double the city's population.
Obama was introduced in the afternoon by civil rights icon U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who was viciously beaten by police on March 7, 1965, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge during the demonstration that has become synonymous with the civil rights movement.
“The Voting Rights Act was one of the crowning achievements of our democracy, the result of Republican and Democratic effort,” Obama said to applause. “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 400 more, and together pledge to make it their mission to restore the law this year.”
In 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, saying that the country had changed since its enactment. Obama also urged voters to step up to the plate and exercise their right to vote. “Of course, our democracy is not the task of Congress alone, or the courts alone, or the president alone,” he said. “If every new voter-suppression law was struck down today, we’d still have one of the lowest voting rates among free peoples.”
He also tackled the nation’s persistent and pervasive problems with racism, citing a damning U.S. Department of Justice report that found a pattern of racial bias in the Ferguson, Mo., Police Department. The report, released this week, came after ongoing protests over the shooting death of unarmed black teen Michael Brown by a white Ferguson police officer after a brief confrontation in August.
“Just this week, I was asked whether I thought the Department of Justice’s Ferguson report shows that, with respect to race, little has changed in this country,” Obama said. “I understand the question, for the report’s narrative was woefully familiar. It evoked the kind of abuse and disregard for citizens that spawned the civil rights movement. But I 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.”
He added that Selma’s march is not over. “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,” he said.
He also touched on criminal-justice reforms, including addressing unfair sentencing, which has bipartisan support among congressional lawmakers. “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 said.
As painful as it was, Bloody Sunday also helped to fling open the doors to social and economic opportunity, the president said. “Because of what they did, the doors of opportunity swung open not just for African Americans but for every American. Women marched through those doors. Latinos marched through those doors. Asian Americans, gay Americans and Americans with disabilities came through those doors. Their endeavors gave the entire South the chance to rise again, not by reasserting the past but by transcending the past.”
And with that, the president and about 50 others marched across the iconic bridge as the sun began to set.
“We honor those who walked so we could run,” he said in closing. “We must run so our children soar. And we will not grow weary. For we believe in the power of an awesome God, and we believe in this country’s sacred promise.”