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From Alabama civil rights tribute, higher hopes for race relations

A gathering in Selma honored the gains of old – and registered new expectations for the Obama era.

By Gary G. YerkeyContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / March 9, 2009

Civil rights weekend: Justin Rogers Jr. (at left) waited Saturday by a float for the start of the Bridge Crossing Jubilee in Selma, Ala.

Gary G. Yerkey

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SELMA, Ala.

Across this largely African-American city, there are signs of hope. Faces light up at the mere mention of President Obama. Even the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where Alabama state troopers attacked defenseless civil rights demonstrators on "Bloody Sunday" 44 years ago this month, seems somehow to lead to a better place – if not yet to the promised land.

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In Selma this past weekend, people gathered to honor the leaders and achievements of the civil rights era of the 1960s, paying homage to a movement that, many here say, laid the foundation for an African-American man to become president of the United States less that half a century later.

Mr. Obama's election is again focusing attention on the unfinished business of racial reconciliation, says the Rev. Clete Kiley, president of the Faith and Politics Institute, which led the weekend tribute that included about 30 members of Congress.

"A page has been turned," he says. "But America has still not had the conversation about race it needs to have.... Our goal [in taking members of Congress to the churches and other landmarks associated with the civil rights era] is to get beyond nostalgia ... and to ask, 'Where do we go from here?' "

It is the ninth time since 1998 that the institute has organized such a trip to coincide with Selma's annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee.

Some warn, however, that the path forward may be compromised by inflated expectations and a sense among some African-Americans that, with the ascendancy of Obama to the nation's highest elected office, their dreams are fulfilled. Others insist that racial inequities spawned by past injustice remain and, in fact, need to be addressed even more urgently in this time of economic turmoil.

"Tough times for America often means tougher times for African-Americans," Obama told a conference on the State of the Black Union late last month. "This recession has been no exception."

The unemployment rate among African-Americans is five percentage points higher than the national average, statistics show. In Selma, which is 70 percent black, one-quarter of families live below the poverty line, compared with 9 percent nationally.

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