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President Obama honors milestone moment at Selma, 50 years later

In speech celebrating the landmark civil rights march, Obama rejects notion that race relations have not improved

President Barack Obama called on Americans to carry forward the spirit of the civil rights movement during a speech in Selma, Alabama, on Saturday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the momentous march known as “Bloody Sunday” and the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

"First and foremost, we have to recognize that one day’s commemoration, no matter how special, is not enough,” Obama said. “If Selma taught us anything, it’s that our work is never done – the American experiment in self-government gives work and purpose to each generation."

Thousands of people arrived in Selma ahead of Obama’s speech, as civil rights leaders and 100 members of Congress sat in attendance. The atmosphere was festive, with vendors selling souvenirs commemorating the violent confrontation that took place decades ago.

Being patriotic, Obama said, does not simply mean singing America's praises. 

"Sometimes, it requires the occasional disruption," Obama said. "Selma teaches us, too, that action requires that we shed our cynicism. For when it comes to the pursuit of justice, we can afford neither complacency nor despair."

Obama, the first black president, delivered remarks at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of the crackdown on the March 7 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. 

During the march state troopers and police violently attacked hundreds of peaceful protesters as they tried to cross the bridge in an event that would become known as "Bloody Sunday." 

"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 said during a trip to South Carolina on Friday.

This aerial view shows a half-mile-long column of civil rights demonstrators, led by Dr Martin Luther King, on March 21, 1965 in Selma, Alabama.
AFP / Getty Images

The Selma anniversary comes as protesters nationwide condemn what they perceive as persistent racial disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system — a movement sparked by a series of police killings of unarmed black men. 

On Saturday, Madison, Wisconsin police killed unarmed black teenager Anthony Robinson. His death has already prompted protests. But it was protests over the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, that placed the issue of discriminatory policing and police brutality in the collective consciousness.

A Department of Justice (DOJ) report released this week accused police in Ferguson of racial bias against the city's black residents. The DOJ, however, did not find a civil rights violation in Brown's death. 

FBI Director James Comey said last month that racial bias persists in the U.S. and goes beyond law enforcement. He cited research that pointed to the widespread existence of unconscious bias.

On Saturday Obama said he had been asked if the report showed that, with respect to race in the United States, little had changed in 50 years.

The president rejected the notion, saying, "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."

"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,” said Obama. “If you think nothing’s changed in the past fifty years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma."

Two days after the Bloody Sunday march, Martin Luther King led over 2,000 people back to the bridge, though he kept from crossing it. The bridge that is now seen as one of the most important sites in civil rights history. 

Ironically, the bridge is named after Edmund Pettus, a Confederate general and Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. At the time it was built, the bridge was viewed as a tribute to white supremacy. But it has been transformed into a symbol of the struggle for racial equality.

On March 21, 1965, marchers finally crossed the bridge and thousands of other protesters joined along the way to Montgomery, with about 25,000 people entering the state capital.

A few months later, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, ending a century of barriers that prevented African Americans from voting freely.

"It's because they marched that the next generation hasn't been bloodied so much," Obama said in a speech in Selma in 2007 as a presidential hopeful. "It's because they marched that I got the kind of education I got, a law degree, a seat in the Illinois senate and ultimately in the United States senate." 

"I'm here because you all sacrificed for me. I stand on the shoulders of giants," Obama said.

With wire services

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