President Obama said the Civil Rights Movement had made progress, but its work was unifinished as he joined marchers at the foot of an iconic civil rights landmark to commemorate the “Bloody Sunday” march of 1965. The nation’s first black president was one of many politicians who traveled to Selma, Alabama on Saturday to mark the anniversary and lead a bipartisan, multiracial ceremony to mark the occasion.
“What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this; what greater form of patriotism is there; than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?” Obama said to the people who had stood for hours to hear him speak from the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, reports the Washington Post.
Approximately 40,000 people gathered in Selma on Saturday to remember that historic day when police viciously attacked peaceful protesters who were trying to cross a bridge to demand an end to discriminatory practices at the polls. “It took two more attempts for marchers—led by John Lewis and Hosea Williams—to successfully complete their roughly 50-mile trip to Montgomery. But their determination—and the searing images of the violence during that first march—shook the nation's collective conscience and helped usher in the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965,” explains USA Today.
Recent events made the commemoration particularly poignant. The New York Times explains:
Coming just days after Mr. Obama’s Justice Department excoriated the police department of Ferguson, Mo., as a hotbed of racist oppression, even as it cleared a white officer in the killing of an unarmed black teenager, the anniversary seemed more than a commemoration of long-ago events on a black-and-white newsreel. Instead, it provided a moment to measure the country’s far narrower, and yet stubbornly persistent, divide in black-and-white reality.
In the run-up to the anniversary, the president had been talking about the need to respect and continue the work of the civil rights movement, reports Bloomberg. “Selma is now. Selma is about the courage of ordinary people doing extraordinary things because they believe they can change the country, that they can shape our nation’s destiny,” Obama told a town hall at Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina. “And historically, it has been young people like you who helped lead that march.”
As the national spotlight turns on Selma it is clear that “the town that changed America has not seemed to make much progress of its own,” as NBC News puts it. Selma is a poor city with an unemployment rate of 10 percent. “Some say such statistics suggest that the country has spent more time on symbolism and honoring the past than focusing on the city's present-day progress,” notes the network.
Meanwhile, hundreds of New Yorkers marched across the Brooklyn Bridge as part of a “Selma is Everywhere” march.