“Fifty years from Bloody Sunday, our march is not yet finished,” President Barack Obama said to a crowd in Selma, Ala., on Saturday afternoon. “But we are getting closer.”
Obama arrived in Selma to take part in ceremonies marking 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” a remembrance of the day hundreds of people were attacked by Alabama state troopers as they marched from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., to protest racial discrimination in voter registration.
“As is true across the landscape of American history, we cannot examine this moment in isolation,” Obama said during his speech. “The march on Selma was part of a broader campaign that spanned generations; the leaders that day part of a long line of heroes.”
Not only the 50-year anniversary has brought national attention to the ceremonies in Selma, but also the past year’s racially charged tragedies and subsequent conversations. Let’s take a look back at the historic movement that took place in Selma and how it still resonates today.
What was the march in Selma about?
The march was spawned by local laws and a system of segregation that was stopping African Americans from voting. On March 7, 1965, about 600 people gathered in Selma to march to the state’s capital, Montgomery. When they reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, the marchers were attacked by state troopers and county members. Many were left injured and even unconscious. Only two days later, the marchers returned, this time let by Dr. Martin Luther King. He brought about 2,500 people back to the Pettus Bridge where they were given a court order that forced them to turn around and stop the march.
Then on March 21, with protection from 1,000 military policemen and 2,000 Army troops, another march began with thousands of new participants. By the time they reached Montgomery, there were about 25,000 people marching in solidarity. On March 25, the marchers brought a petition for Gov. George Wallace to the Alabama State Capitol building.
A few months after the marches, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, which was designed to eliminate legal barriers at the state and local level that prevented African Americans from exercising their right to vote under the 15th Amendment. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the act into law on August 6, 1965.
“Political, economic, and social barriers came down,” Obama said Saturday, “and the change these men and women wrought is visible here today in the presence of African-Americans who run boardrooms, who sit on the bench, who serve in elected office from small towns to big cities; from the Congressional Black Caucus to the Oval Office.”
What does Selma mean today
This past year and its tragedies have shone a spotlight on how alive racial inequality in America still is today. The deaths of several unarmed black men at the hands of police officers, like Michael Brown and Eric Garner, led to months of protests and renewed conversations about race and racism being ingrained in our country’s most basic structures. The movement that led to the Selma marches is still going on.
Last week, the Department of Justice released a report that described racism in the practices of the Ferguson, Mo., police force. Rev. Al Sharpton said to Politico that recent racially charged events have reminded the United States that it still has a long way to go to erase the legacy of slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow. “He goes 50 years after Hosea Williams and John Lewis were beaten on that bridge, that led to the Voting Rights Act, that in many ways laid the groundwork to be the first black president. He goes eight years after he crossed that bridge, when many people thought Hillary Clinton would be the president,” Sharpton said. “And he goes across that bridge two days after his Justice Department had to deal with outright racial profiling and bias in Ferguson. … The irony is he goes represent the progress that we made, but mandated with how far we are yet to come.”
Obama addressed the report in his speech, while keeping his focus hopeful. “Just this week, I was asked whether I thought the Department of Justice’s Ferguson report shows that, with respect to race, little has changed in this country,” Obama said. “I understand the question, for the report’s narrative was woefully familiar. It evoked the kind of abuse and disregard for citizens that spawned the Civil Rights Movement. 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.”
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who was one of the demonstrators attacked by troopers 50 years ago, joined Obama and other members of Congress at the ceremony. Lewis spoke about the importance of continuing to fight for racial equality. “We must use this moment to recommit ourselves to do all we can to finish this work,” Lewis said Saturday, according to CNN. “There’s still work to be done.”