“Not because the change they won was preordained, not because their victory was complete,” he said, “but because they proved that nonviolent change is possible, that love and hope can conquer hate.”
The mere fact of an African-American president is a sign of the strides taken since Selma, as Obama alluded to himself.
But just three days earlier, Obama's Justice Department issued a report documenting rampant racism in the Ferguson, Mo., Police Department. The Justice Department still declined to pursue federal charges against the police officer who shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown last year, sparking a nationwide protest movement.
“It evoked the kind of abuse and disregard for citizens that spawned the civil rights movement,” Obama said of the Justice Department report.
“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.”
Brown’s death and those of other young black men at the hands of police were on the lips and the T-shirts of many in the crowd. Several protesters beat a drum and chanted “Ferguson is here; we want change” during the president’s speech.
Obama sought to recognize the continued frustration, while comparing it favorably with what this city went through a half-century 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,” Obama said.
“Of course, a more common mistake is to suggest that racism is banished,” he said, “that the work that drew men and women to Selma is complete, and that whatever racial tensions remain are a consequence of those seeking to play the ‘race card’ for their own purposes.
“We don’t need the Ferguson report to know that’s not true. 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.”
In his second term, Obama has more often addressed race, a consequence of him being more at ease with no election in front of him, as well as outside events such as the police killings of young black men in Ferguson, New York City and Cleveland. He tied in the fight for equality for women and gays, as well.
To advance the movement today, Obama touted criminal justice reform efforts and the need to expand economic opportunity in underserved communities. The city he spoke in, for example, is 80 percent black, and 40 percent of its residents live below the poverty line.
Obama also made a forceful pitch to the roughly 100 members of Congress in attendance to restore federal "pre-clearance" for new voting laws under the Voting Rights Act, which was effectively dismantled by the Supreme Court two years ago.
The court said the formula to decide which states must submit all voting changes to the federal government was overly broad and outdated. A new bill that would at first ensnare just four states — including Georgia — in pre-clearance was blocked by Republicans last year.
Opponents say pre-clearance is too intrusive and no longer necessary when anyone can file suit under the Voting Rights Act against a voting law they consider to be discriminatory. The bill’s backers say the shield is necessary to combat harder-to-find discrimination in small towns and rural areas.
Obama lamented that the Voting Rights Act’s future has become a partisan issue, noting that it had been reauthorized in the past with broad support and signed by Republican presidents. Bush stood to applaud with the rest of the crowd at Obama’s urging to Congress to “restore the law this year.”
The congressional delegation was led by Rep. John Lewis, an Atlanta Democrat and civil rights activist who led the Bloody Sunday march and suffered a fractured skull in the melee.
Lewis annually conducts a civil rights pilgrimage that brings him back to this city every year.
This time, a record number of Republicans came with him to Selma, including House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. A couple of Republicans interviewed Saturday expressed openness to the idea of the Voting Rights Act update, if not the specific bill.
“I haven’t studied it sufficiently to comment on it,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. “It may be something that we can do and maybe in a bipartisan way.”
Said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, “I think it’s something that should be debated again.”
The pilgrimage “is about more than just tweaks to the Voting Rights Act though,” Portman added. “This is about how do we ensure we have equal justice, and how do we learn from the lessons of the past. And it’s been powerful.”
Lewis shared personal reflections for the group Friday at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where four young girls were killed in a 1963 bombing. Saturday, he introduced the president in Selma.
“We must use this moment to recommit ourselves to do all we can to finish the work,” Lewis said. “There’s still work left to be done. Get out there and push and pull until we redeem the soul of America.”
Lewis and Obama later joined hands, along with first lady Michelle Obama, George W. and Laura Bush, and a host of others, to march across the bridge again.