‘Our march is not yet finished.’ Thousands gather to see Obama mark 50th anniversary of Selma

President Barack Obama today declared America’s fight for civil rights ‘is not yet ended, but we’re getting closer’ as he commemorated the 50th anniversary of a historic march that paved the way for the 1965 Voting Rights Act alongside his family and notable activists in Selma, Alabama.

Tens of thousands of people had gathered in the town of roughly 20,000 to hear Obama, the first black US president, deliver his remarks at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where police and state troopers beat and used tear gas against more than 600 people who were peacefully protesting for voting rights.

Bloody Sunday, Selma, btbThe violence, later dubbed ‘Bloody Sunday’, preceded the Selma-to-Montgomery march, which occurred two weeks later and was led by renowned civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Both events helped build momentum for congressional approval of the landmark voting legislation later that year.

Speaking at the foot of the iconic bridge this afternoon, Obama, who was joined by his wife First Lady Michelle Obama, daughters Sasha and Malia, and around 100 members of Congress, told millions of viewers: ‘Fifty years from Bloody Sunday, our march is not yet ended, but we’re getting closer’.

He said that racial prejudice revealed in a recent Justice Department report about policing in Ferguson, Missouri – carried out in the wake of Michael Brown’s 2014 death – showed a lot of work needed to be done on race in the US. But he warned it was wrong to suggest progress had not been made.

During his speech, Obama, who was standing just feet away from where ex-president George W. Bush was sat alongside Mrs Obama in the sun, also honored the hundreds of men and women who had stood their ground in Selma, which he deemed a city of extreme importance to America’s history.

‘We gather here to honor the courage of ordinary Americans willing to endure billy clubs and the chastening rod, tear gas and the trampling hoof; men and women who despite the gush of blood and splintered bone would stay true to their North Star and keep marching toward justice,’ he said.

The President continued: ‘What they did here will reverberate through the ages. Not because the change they won was preordained, not because their victory was complete, but because they proved that nonviolent change is possible; that love and hope can conquer hate.’

President Obama, Congressman  John Lewis, Selma, btbObama, who wore an American flag pinned to his black suit jacket for the occasion, was formally introduced by Georgia Democratic Congressman John Lewis, who was among the marchers seriously injured by police 50 years ago. Taking the stand, Lewis also asked the public to build on Selma’s legacy.

‘We come to Selma to be renewed. We come to be inspired,’ he said. ‘We must do the work that injustice and inequality calls us to do.’ He then added: ‘If someone told me 50 years ago I’d be back on this bridge introducing a black president of the United States, I’d have said you’re crazy.’

As he walked up to the podium, Obama, who was earlier pictured touching down at an Alabama air base on Air Force One, gave Lewis a hug and a pat on the back. Touchingly, he told the 40,000-strong crowd: ‘It is a rare honor in this life to follow one of your heroes. And John Lewis is one of my heroes.’

Around 12 minutes into Obama’s speech a small group of protesters carrying placards like ‘stop the violence’ started to bang on a drum to the west of the stage. They chanted ‘we want change’, drowning out his remarks for that part of the crowd. They were apparently stopped when police moved in.

At one point in his speech, the President said of the notion that racism is no longer an issue in America: ‘We don’t need the Ferguson report to know that’s not true’, referring to the Justice Department document, which found that seven racist emails had been sent by officials in the St Louis suburb.

‘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,’ he continued. ‘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.’ But he noted that race relations in the US had come a long way – referring to progress in gender and marriage equality.

‘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,’ said Obama. ‘We do a disservice to the cause of justice by intimating that bias and discrimination are immutable, or that racial division is inherent to America. If you think nothing’s changed in the past 50 years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or L.A. of the Fifties.’

He then went on to criticize Congress for failing to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act. He told the gathered crowd – including activists Reverend Al Sharpton, Reverend Jesse Jackson and Reverend Martin Luther King III – that the Act was ‘one of the crowning achievements of our democracy’.

As the walk ended, Obama spoke to Amelia Boynton Robinson, who was in a wheelchair, cracking a joke about the 103-year-old’s longevity. He turned to the group and said ‘what an extraordinary honor this has been, especially to have Sasha and Malia here’.

He later had a brief tour of the National Voting Rights Museum led by volunteer, Felicia Pettway. The space holds black and white photos of events on the bridge, artifacts belonging to the protestors and original voters’ rights campaign material.

Shortly after 2.30pm today, Governor Robert Bentley kicked off the speeches. However, he was booed by some when introduced. Ignoring the crowd’s reaction, Bentley went on to say ‘Selma changed America, Selma changed the world’ and quoted Lynyrd Skynyrd song ‘Sweet Home Alabama.’

Congresswoman Terri Sewell then gave brief remarks and praised the next speaker, Lewis, as an ‘icon’. Lewis received a loud cheer, before saying there was ‘still work left to be done’ and ‘our country will never ever be the same because of what happened on this bridge’.

Photographers at the event noted placards in the crowd reading ‘We need change’ and ‘Please Stop killing us’. The latter was adorned with an image of a young black man from Tampa, Florida, named Andrew Joseph, who was killed when he was struck by a car on the state’s Interstate 4.

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