Why the Legacy of Selma Begins Now

© Jonathan Ernst/Reuters President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 7. The remarks come on the 50th anniversary of the "Bloody Sunday" march at the bridge.
© Jonathan Ernst/Reuters President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 7. The remarks come on the 50th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” march at the bridge.

“If Selma taught us anything,” said President Barack Obama during his keynote speech at the Alabama city’s Edmund Pettus Bridge on Saturday, “it’s that the work continues.” Stating that “this nation’s racial history casts a long shadow” over the present day, Obama gave a stirring address that called on Americans to renew the quest for freedom that animated demonstrators during the civil rights movement’s heroic period.

But eloquent words fall short of necessary policy prescriptions.

Fifty years after a group of almost 600 peaceful demonstrators, many dressed in their Sunday best, were routed by Alabama State Police on horseback carrying truncheons, “Bloody Sunday” has become a metaphor for the nation’s rough road toward racial justice and equality.

The violence that unspooled on national television that day, March 7, 1965, set the stage for two of the era’s most important statesman to deliver historic speeches whose words still reverberate in our time.  President Lyndon Johnson went first, eight days later, during an address to a joint congressional session, when he compared Selma’s fallen heroes to the patriots who fought the American Revolution in Lexington and Concord. The time for their full citizenship had come, Johnson insisted, for “the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy.” Johnson’s final words, “We shall overcome,” channeled the movement’s defiant optimism by directing it toward the nation rather than politicians.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s March 25 speech in Selma offered a valediction of past movement triumphs and an acknowledgement of the long road ahead.  Major television networks transmitted King’s speech live that afternoon as he proclaimed, “Segregation is on its deathbed in Alabama.” He implored the 30,000 gathered to continue protesting: “Yes, we are on the move, and no wave of racism can stop us.”

A half-century later, Obama returns to Selma burdened by searing political responsibilities that are both historic and contemporary. The nation’s first black president visits the site of a historic showdown over race and democracy in the wake of a contemporary American racial crisis.

The release of the Justice Department’s scathing report on systemic racism in the Ferguson, Missouri police department and the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing has produced a cascading effect, buoyed by grassroots social and policy activism, which has compelled Obama to more forcefully confront racial inequality in our own time.

Amid national headlines outlining prisoner abuse at Rikers Island and Attica, the president spoke in Columbia, South Carolina this past Friday ahead of his keynote address in Selma. While he noted that events in Ferguson were “not a complete aberration,” Obama implored Americans to “work together to solve the problem and not get caught up either in the cynicism that says this is never going to change because everybody is racist. That’s not a good solution.”

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Source: Newsweek | Peniel Joseph

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