Standing before the landmark Edmund Pettus Bridge to commemorate a historic moment in the civil rights movement, President Obama on Saturday called upon Americans to acknowledge progress the nation has made in easing racial tensions but remain vigilant for the hard work still ahead. “Fifty years from ‘Bloody Sunday,’ our march is not yet finished,” Obama told a crowd of several hundred black and white faces gathered on the 50th anniversary of the Selma march, when Alabama police brutally beat black protesters demanding access to the ballot. “But we are getting closer,” Obama said. “Our job’s easier because somebody already got us through that first mile. Somebody already got us over that bridge.”
As the nation’s first African American president, Obama has often been expected to serve as a bridge himself, for America’s racial divide. Following the unrest triggered last summer by the shooting death of an unarmed black man by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., and incidents in other cities, the president has struggled to help define and guide a civil rights movement for the next generation.
In a soaring speech delivered at nearly the same time and spot that demonstrators were attacked by state troopers and local law enforcement 50 years earlier, Obama urged Americans to shed cynicism and complacency, and embrace individual responsibility and the “imperative of citizenship.”
As the president spoke, the crowd drowned out the ends of his sentences with applause and cheers. Teenagers strained to see and take pictures with their smartphones. Older faces were wet with tears.