Under a bright afternoon sun, next to an iconic bridge across the Alabama River in Selma Saturday, President Obama marked the 1965 civil rights march from which a straight if sometimes politically taut line can be drawn from overt racial discrimination to his own place in history as the nation’s first African-American president.
"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," Mr. Obama said. "It was not a clash of armies, but a clash of wills; a contest to determine the meaning of America.”
“There are places, and moments in America, where this nation’s destiny has been decided,” he said. “Selma is such a place."
Behind him, as he spoke for just over a half hour, was the Edmund Pettus Bridge, named for a Confederate brigadier general and Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan.
Before him sat civil rights leaders, veterans of that day, and black elected officials – including Rep. John Lewis (D) of Georgia, beaten by state troopers as he tried to cross that bridge on what became known as “Bloody Sunday.” Also attending the event along with thousands of others was Peggy Wallace Kennedy, a daughter of George Wallace, the late Alabama governor who once vowed "segregation forever."
“What a solemn debt we owe,” Obama said as he looked out on the crowd, estimated to total 40,000 people. “Which leads us to ask, just how might we repay that debt?” At which point his speech became more overtly political.
For him, and for many other Democrats in Congress as well as today’s civil rights leaders, a key answer is strengthening the Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson not long after the march in Selma. (Under the protection of federalized troops from the Alabama National Guard, marchers eventually were able to complete the 54-mile trek to the state capitol in Montgomery on March 25, 1965.)
To supporters, the Voting Rights Act has been weakened by conservatives on the US Supreme Court and in Congress.
“The culmination of so much blood and sweat and tears, the product of so much sacrifice in the face of wanton violence, stands weakened, its future subject to partisan rancor,” Obama said. “How can that be? The Voting Rights Act was one of the crowning achievements of our democracy, the result of Republican and Democratic efforts. President Reagan signed its renewal when he was in office. President George W. Bush [who joined Obama on the platform for Saturday’s commemoration] signed its renewal when he was in office.”
Noting continuing discrimination, Obama addressed his administration’s investigation of the Ferguson, Missouri, police department. The investigation found widespread racial bias in the department, and it called for a long list of changes in police-community relations.
The investigation, he said, "evoked the kind of abuse and disregard for citizens that spawned the civil rights movement.”
“But I rejected the notion that nothing's changed,” Obama continued. “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."
Just before crossing the bridge with others Saturday in a ceremonial recreation of 1965, Obama – who was just five years old that year – looked ahead at the unfolding legacy of Selma.
"Fifty years from 'Bloody Sunday', our march is not yet finished," he said. "But we are getting closer. Two hundred and thirty-nine years after this nation's founding, our union is not yet perfect. But we are getting closer. Our job's easier because somebody already got us through that first mile. Somebody already got us over that bridge."