- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 7, 2015

Commemorating the 50th anniversary of the bloody civil-rights march in Selma, Alabama, President Obama said Saturday that America’s history of racial conflict “still casts its long shadow” and he called on Congress to strengthen voting-rights laws for minorities.

Speaking to a crowd of about 40,000 at the Edmund Pettus bridge where marchers were attacked by state troopers in 1965, Mr. Obama said it’s a “common mistake” for Americans to believe that “racism is banished.” He pointed to this week’s Justice Department report that found widespread patterns of racial bias in the Ferguson, Missouri, police department.

“We just need to open our eyes, and ears, and hearts, to know that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us,” Mr. Obama said. “Citizens in Ferguson and New York and Cleveland just want the same thing young people here marched for 50 years ago — the protection of the law.”

About 10 minutes into Mr. Obama’s speech, a group of protestors carrying signs such as “stop the violence” began to bang a drum and chant “we want change,” drowning out his remarks for part of the crowd. The chanting drew angry reactions from some in the audience until police moved the protesters away.

Mr. Obama drew a connection between the events of 50 years ago and his current efforts to reform the criminal justice system.

“Together, we can address unfair sentencing, and overcrowded prisons, and the stunted circumstances that rob too many boys of the chance to become men, and rob the nation of too many men who could be good dads, and good workers, and good neighbors,” he said.

The president also praised the marchers of long ago, including Rep. John Lewis, Georgia Democrat, for serving as catalysts of change for the better.

“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 all the way to the Oval Office,” Mr. Obama said. “Because of what they did, the doors of opportunity swung open not just for black folks, but for every American. What they did here will reverberate through the ages.”

Thousands gathered in Selma to mark the anniversary of the march, a landmark event of the civil rights movement that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. First lady Michelle Obama, former President George W. Bush and about 100 members of Congress also attended the event.

Speaker John Boehner, Ohio Republican, didn’t attend but issued a statement on the anniversary.

“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,” Mr. Boehner said.

Mr. Obama said the clash on the bridge was “a contest to determine the true meaning of America.”

“In one afternoon fifty 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 – all that history met on this bridge,” Mr. Obama said.

The president used the occasion to criticize voter ID laws in many Republican-controlled states, and the Supreme Court decision in 2013 to strike down a key section of the Voting Rights Act. The ruling allowed nine mostly southern states to change their election laws without advance federal approval.

“Fifty years after Selma, there are laws across this country designed to make it harder for people to vote,” Mr. Obama said. “As we speak, more of such laws are being proposed. 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 political rancor. How can that be?”

Noting that the Voting Rights Act has traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support, the president added, “One hundred members of Congress have come here today to honor people who were willing to die for the right to protect it. If we want to honor this day, let these hundred go back to Washington, and gather four hundred more, and together, pledge to make it their mission to restore the law this year.”

Mr. Obama also chastised voter apathy, saying too many citizens today are taking for granted the sacrifices of the civil-rights marchers of a half-century ago.

“What is our excuse today for not voting?” he asked. “How do we so casually discard the right for which so many fought?”

Although he was not a foot soldier in the civil-rights movement, the president said that he benefited from its achievements. And Mr. Obama inserted his own 2008 campaign slogan into the historical mix of popular phrases that have signified revolutionary changes.

“The single most powerful word in our democracy is the word ‘We,’” Mr. Obama said. “We The People. We Shall Overcome. Yes We Can. Fifty years from Bloody Sunday, our march is not yet finished. But we are getting closer.”

On the flight to Selma on Air Force One, Mr. Obama signed a law granting the congressional Gold Medal to the thousands of “foot soldiers” who participated in Bloody Sunday, Turnaround Tuesday, or the final Selma-to-Montgomery Voting Rights March during March 1965.

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