President Barack Obama commemorated the 50th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday" on Saturday. In 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. marched with civil rights activists across Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL, before police officers brought on a violent confrontation. Standing in front of the bridge half a century later, the president reflected on the fight for racial equality. "The Americans who crossed this bridge were not physically imposing, but they gave courage to millions," he said. "They held no elected office, but they led a nation. They marched as Americans who had endured hundreds of years of brutal violence and countless daily indignities, but they didn't seek special treatment — just the equal treatment promised to them almost a century before."
While stating that he rejects "the notion that nothing's changed," Obama brought attention to police brutality in Ferguson, MO, and elsewhere: "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." Obama called on the American people to embrace the "fierce urgency of now" to "make sure our criminal justice system serves all and not just some" and Congress to "pledge to make it their mission to restore the law this year," referencing the Supreme Court's decision to strike down part of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. "Right now, in 2015, 50 years after Selma, there are laws across this country designed to make it harder for people to vote," he said. "Meanwhile, the Voting Rights Act, the culmination of so much blood and sweat and tears, the product of so much sacrifice in the face of wanton violence, stands weakened, its future subject to partisan rancor."
The president was introduced by Rep. John Lewis, who stood with King in 1965 and is depicted in Selma, the Oscar-nominated movie about the march. "Each of us must go back to our homes after this celebration and build on the legacy of this march in 1965," Lewis said. He also touched on the lessons we learned from Selma. "The Selma movement is saying today that we can all do something. Don't yield up anything . . . Don't get lost in a sea of despair," he said. "We are one people, one family, the human family. We all live in one house, the American house, our house."
Obama called Lewis "one of my heroes" in his speech, recognizing the lasting impact he had on the nation. "His knapsack stocked with an apple, a toothbrush, a book on government — all you need for a night behind bars — John Lewis led them out of the church on a mission to change America." To put it all in perspective, Obama encouraged the country to find inspiration in heroes like Lewis who made unimaginable sacrifices. "Fifty years from Bloody Sunday, our march is not yet finished," he said. "But we are getting closer. Two hundred and thirty-nine years after this nation's founding, our union is not yet perfect. But we are getting closer. Our job's easier because somebody already got us through that first mile. Somebody already got us over that bridge."
The president's speech is just the latest in a string of recent tributes to Selma. In February, John Legend and Common's song "Glory," which was written about the struggles in Selma, won an Oscar for best original song. In their emotional acceptance speech, John highlighted the high incarceration rates of black males in American prisons. Before the two accepted the award, their stirring performance of "Glory" had the audience in tears. The viral moments followed up their performance of the anthem at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in January.