SELMA, ALABAMA — On Saturday, President Obama spoke at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the 50th anniversary of the attack on voting rights protesters known as Bloody Sunday.
“Our march is not yet finished, but we are getting closer,” he said. ” If Selma taught us anything, it’s that our work is never done – the American experiment in self-government gives work and purpose to each generation.”
As he spoke, a group of protesters wearing shirts with airbrushed portraits of those killed by police started banging on drums and chanted, “Ferguson is here. We want change!” and “This is what democracy looks like.”
Obama did not pause his speech or acknowledge the interruption. But some older people in the crowd became angry, shouting at the young protesters: “Your vote is your voice! Get registered!”
A few of the demonstrators were removed by state troopers, and the rest agreed to remain silent.
Later, the President seemed to speak directly to the anger they voiced:
Just this week, I was asked whether I thought the Department of Justice’s Ferguson report shows that, with respect to race, little has changed in this country. I understand the question, for the report’s narrative was woefully 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, or sanctioned by law and custom; and before the Civil Rights Movement, it most surely was.
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. 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 Fifties. Ask the female CEO who once might have been assigned to the secretarial pool if nothing’s changed. Ask your gay friend if it’s easier to be out and proud in America now than it was thirty years ago. 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.
Of course, a more common mistake is to suggest that racism is banished, that the work that drew men and women to Selma is complete, and that whatever racial tensions remain are a consequence of those seeking to play the “race card” for their own purposes. We don’t need the Ferguson report to know that’s not true. 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. We know the march is not yet over, the race is not yet won, and that reaching that blessed destination where we are judged by the content of our character – requires admitting as much.