Bloody Sunday anniversary: Selma recalls Voting Rights Act

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President Obama led the ceremony Saturday marking the 50th anniversary of the Selma, Ala., “Bloody Sunday” march, hailing the men and women who fought for civil rights in the 1960s but also declaring that more work needs to be done for race relations in the United States.

“There are places, and moments in America, where this nation’s destiny has been decided,” the president said. “Selma is such a place.”

He spoke from the Edmund Pettus Bridge on which police, using clubs and tear gas, attacked civil rights demonstrators on March 7, 1965. The event is considered a watershed moment in the civil rights movement and helped lead to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

“In one afternoon 50 years ago, 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,” Obama said, turning to Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who was present at the march. “It is a rare honor in this life to follow one of your heroes. And John Lewis is one of my heroes.”

Obama was joined by a delegation that included the first family, former President George W. Bush and roughly 100 members of Congress, including Lewis, who was seriously injured in the march. Members of the group, which also included former first lady Laura Bush, joined hands on stage after the president’s speech.

Tens of thousands of others also attended the event. Congressional Republican leaders were absent from the event, but House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio released a statement.

“Today, 50 years after the Selma to Montgomery marches began, the House honors the brave foot soldiers who risked their lives to secure the blessings of liberty for all Americans,” Boehner said.

Selma still struggles to overcome its legacy.

The city’s population has declined by about 40 percent to 20,000 in the last 50 years and Dallas County’s unemployment rate is nearly double the state average. Public schools in Selma are nearly all black; most whites go to private schools. Blacks lead the annual “Bloody Sunday” commemoration; whites lead an annual re-enactment of the 1865 “Battle of Selma” to attract Civil War re-enactors.

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.”

He added: “Our march is not yet finished.”

He said the Justice Department’s report on the Ferguson, Mo. police department shows that not enough has changed in the country with respect to race relations.

“But I rejected the notion that nothing’s changed,” Obama said. “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.”

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