Black Affairs, Africa and Development

Obama Marks Civil Rights March Anniversary in Selma

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VOA News

U.S. President Barack Obama has marked the 50th anniversary of an attempted Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march that became known as “Bloody Sunday” with a call to Americans to work together to make the country better.

While acknowledging that the race for equal opportunity “is not yet won,” President Obama – the nation’s first African-American president – told thousands gathered Saturday in the southern town of Selma, Alabama that he rejects the notion that nothing has changed.

As the commemoration continued Sunday, Attorney General Eric Holder praised the 1965 activists for their bravery in the fight for voting rights. “With the relentless drumbeat of their footsteps,” Holder said, “they awoke the conscience of the nation, and the bent the arc of the moral universe a little further towards justice.”

The anniversary comes as the U.S. struggles with renewed racial tensions over police treatment of African Americans.  Much of the focus has been on the town of Ferguson, Missouri, where a white police officer shot and killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown last year during a street confrontation.

But President Obama said a Justice Department report this week concluding police in Ferguson have routinely violated black citizens’ rights does not erase the nation’s progress.

“What happened in Ferguson may not be unique, but it is no longer endemic, it is no longer sanctioned by law or by custom, and before the Civil Rights Movement, it most surely was,” Obama said.  He called on Americans of all races to make the effort to ensure the U.S. criminal justice system “serves all and not just some.

“Together, we can raise the level of mutual trust that policing is built on – the idea that police officers are members of the community they risk their lives to protect, and citizens in Ferguson and New York and Cleveland, they just want the same thing young people here marched for 50 years ago – the protection of the law,” he said.

After speaking near the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Obama and a massive crowd walked across the bridge where police and troopers attacked demonstrators on March 7, 1965 when they tried to march from Selma to Montgomery in support of voting rights for all races.

Two weeks after that day, known as “Bloody Sunday,” civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., led a successful Selma-to-Montgomery march.  The demonstrations helped spark the Voting Rights Act of 1965, prohibiting discrimination based on race.

On the flight from Washington, Obama awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the marchers who he called “foot soldiers” that participated in the two marches.

Obama’s wife, Michelle, and daughters, Malia and Sasha, were also present at Saturday’s event, as well as Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, and his wife, Laura.

Also in attendance: Congressman John Lewis, a leader of the Bloody Sunday march who was severely beaten himself. Lewis addressed the crowd before President Obama, after previously expressing disappointment that Republican congressional leaders would be absent from the commemoration.

Last November, heated protests erupted in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson and across the country, after a grand jury cleared the officer charged in Michael Brown’s death. Adding to the nationwide outcry were several other high-profile incidents, including the police chokehold death of a black man in New York.

Some information for this report comes from AP and Reuters.

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