The Edmund Pettus Bridge revealed the nature of racism in its most gruesome form. Fifty years after ”Blood Sunday,” more than 80,000 people converged on Selma, Alabama, to commemorate the anniversary of the shocking attack on peaceful marchers that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
But the mood in Selma on March 7 and 8, 2015, was celebratory as thousands marched, danced and witnessed performances by stars such as Doug E. Fresh, Chris Tucker and BBD. For 48 hours in Selma, it appeared as if everything was right with the world and we had finally overcome.
However, reality can come down like a sledgehammer. Today, Selma continues to struggle when it comes to equal pay and wealth distribution between Whites and Blacks. According to City-data.com, the median household income for Black families in Selma is only $17,675. Comparatively, the median household income for White families is $41,582. Most Blacks in Selma continue to struggle to break the chains of generational poverty, and that fact is painfully obvious as much of the town still looks like it was plucked straight from the 1960s.
On the national front, U.S. lawmakers have disrespected the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, and others in the Civil Rights Movement by failing to fix a glitch in the Voting Rights Act. In 2013, the Supreme Court overturned the preclearance requirement that stopped states from changing voting laws under the Voting Rights Act without the approval of the Justice Department. But now that the condition of preclearance has been removed, right-wing states are figuring out ways to suppress the Black and Latino vote.
In Texas, the state will not allow students to use their state-issued college identification cards to vote, but those who have a gun permit can use it at the polls. With the extreme voter ID laws in place, more than 600,000 residents of Texas, who are majority Black and Latino, would not be able to vote.
Another pressing issue in America continues to be the police violence being used against unarmed Black men. Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Tony Robinson, Anthony Hill and Dillon Taylor were all unarmed when they were killed by police.
Protests across the nation created a firestorm and drew attention to the troubling issue. But work must still be done after several White officers were not indicted for killing unarmed victims.
That’s why it was critical for President Barack Obama to speak in Selma on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday. America’s first Black president discussed the current state of race relations while also touching on how the nation must confront ongoing racist attitudes.
“In one afternoon 50 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,” Obama said.
President Obama also touched on the racist attitudes found to be prevalent in the Ferguson Police Department.
“I understood the question; the report’s narrative was sadly familiar. It evoked the kind of abuse and disregard for citizens that spawned the Civil Rights Movement. But I rejected the notion that nothing’s changed. What happened in Ferguson may not be unique, but it’s no longer endemic. It’s no longer sanctioned by law or by custom. And before the Civil Rights Movement, it most surely was,” he said.
He also spoke about police brutality and the high incarceration rates of young Black males.
“With such an effort, we can make sure our criminal justice system serves all and not just some,” President Obama said. “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. 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.”
In closing, President Obama paid homage to those who risked their lives and freedom to push for the right to vote.
“We honor those who walked so we could run,” he said. “We must run so our children can soar. And we will not grow weary. For we believe in the power of an awesome God, and we believe in this country’s sacred promise.”
Obama’s speech provided a sense of hope for a people who continue to fight for equality in a nation that was founded upon such principles. But moving forward, the next movement for justice must occur today. Who will be willing to stand up for the cause so that change can manifest in the next 50 years?
Story and images by A.R. Shaw