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Obama at Selma: “Our March Is Not Yet Finished”

"Our march is not yet finished" (White House photo)

“Our march is not yet finished” (White House photo)

Standing at the foot of a bridge named after a former Ku Klux Klan grand master, within site of a billboard honoring the founder of said KKK, President Barack Obama addressed tens of thousands of people gathered in Selma, Alabama—and the nation—on Saturday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the ‘Bloody Sunday’ march that marked a turning point in the American civil rights movement.

“Fifty years from Bloody Sunday, our march is not yet finished, but we’re getting closer,” Obama told the crowd of as many as 40,000 gathered at and near the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where some 600 black and white civil rights demonstrators led by John Lewis, now a US congressman, and Hosea Williams were brutally attacked by state and local police on March 7, 1965 as they attempted to begin a 54-mile (87 km) march from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital, in support of voting rights denied to blacks.

Joined by First Lady Michelle Obama, their daughters Sasha and Malia, some 100 members of Congress, former president George W. Bush, and ‘Bloody Sunday’ marchers including Rep. Lewis and 103-year-old Amelia Boynton Robinson, both of whom were savagely beaten 50 years ago—Lewis suffered a fractured skull and Boynton was beaten unconscious, the president paid tribute to the courageous men and women who risked their lives in pursuit of the “liberty and justice for all” professed by white America but denied in reality to the nation’s citizens of color.

“We gather here to honor the courage of ordinary Americans willing to endure billy clubs and the chastening rod; tear gas and the trampling hoof; men and women who despite the gush of blood and splintered bone would stay true to their North Star and keep marching toward justice,” Obama said, citing three civil rights activists—Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old deacon; Viola Liuzzo, a mother of five from Michigan; and James Reeb, a Unitarian minister—who were killed fighting for equality in Selma.

Continuing with the “not yet finished” theme, the president cited recent police slaying of unarmed black men and boys—just a day before his speech, 19-year-old Tony Robinson was gunned down by a white Madison, Wisconsin police officer—as proof of enduring racism in America.

“A more common mistake is to suggest that Ferguson is an isolated incident; that racism is banished; that the work that drew men and women to Selma is now complete, and that whatever racial tensions remain are a consequence of those seeking to play the ‘race card’ for their own purposes,” asserted Obama. “We don’t need the Ferguson report to know that’s not true. We just need to open our eyes, and our ears, and our hearts to know that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us.”

However, Obama also said that it is a mistake to suggest, as many civil rights activists—including, at times, this publication—do, that America is an inherently racist nation.

“If you think nothing’s changed in the past fifty years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or L.A. of the 1950s,” he said. “We do a disservice to the cause of justice by intimating that bias and discrimination are immutable, or that racial division is inherent to America,” Obama told the crowd and the country. “To deny this progress—our progress—would be to rob us of our own agency, our responsibility to do what we can to make America better.”

“And that’s what the young people here today and listening all across the country must take away from this day,” Obama continued, making the case for the globally dubious, but domestically accepted, even sacrosanct, notion of ‘American exceptionalism,’ and responding to recent right-wing accusations, led by former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, that he does not love America.

“You are America. Unconstrained by habits and convention. Unencumbered by what is, and ready to seize what ought to be. For everywhere in this country, there are first steps to be taken, and new ground to cover, and bridges to be crossed,” he said. “And it is you, the young and fearless at heart, the most diverse and educated generation in our history, who the nation is waiting to follow.”

“That’s what it means to love America,” Obama told the Selma crowd, the nation and his critics. “That’s what it means to believe in America. That’s what it means when we say America is exceptional.”

The president acknowledged a wider definition of patriotism, which includes protesters and dissidents who “believed that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths.”

“It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what’s right and shake up the status quo,” he said, even as his administration continues to wage a war on whistleblowers who expose serious crimes and misdeeds committed by the US government and military, including torture, the killing of innocent civilians during wartime and mass global surveillance, including of Americans’ phone and Internet communications.

In addition to honoring those who have fought for racial equality, Obama also connected the gay rights protesters “whose blood ran on the streets of San Francisco and New York” to the ‘Bloody Sunday’ marchers, and lauded the civil rights struggles of women, immigrants, Latinos, Asians and people with disabilities.

While Peggy Wallace Kennedy, daughter of George Wallace, the racist Alabama governor who ordered the violent repression of civil rights protests, joined in the solemn commemoration, Republican leaders, who have spearheaded efforts to roll back voting rights gained with the blood of protesters in that bygone era, were notably missing from Saturday’s event.

This conspicuous absence was noted by even the staunchly conservative National Review, which lamented that “the Republican leadership suggests that it does not recognize what Selma represents within America’s long history of public dissent.”

The president did not waste the opportunity to attack Republicans for their concerted campaign to dismantle the Voting Rights Act, which was a direct result of the Selma protests, and disenfranchise blacks through voter identification laws and early voting cutbacks that even Republican officials in Ohio and Florida have admitted are racially motivated.

“Right now, in 2015, 50 years after Selma, there are laws across this country designed to make it harder for people to vote,” 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 partisan rancor.”

Closer at hand, many white Selma residents even oppose a growing movement to rename the Edmund Pettus bridge, named after a Confederate general and KKK grand master. Standing in sight of the historic bridge is a billboard, paid for by a group headed by KKK ‘wizardess’ Patricia Goodwin, honoring Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest.

“Does it say anything in the Constitution where a certain faction of people cannot be offended?”Goodwin told the Grio. “I’m offended by all these people walking around with their pants hanging around their knees,” she added, a reference to a popular style of black youth fashion.

On the back of the billboard, there was a message welcoming President Obama to Selma, a stark illustration of the glaring racial divide that still plagues a nation that was founded upon the ideal that “all men are created equal,” even while nearly all black men at the time were bound by the shackles of slavery.

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