Americans must continue to embrace the message of the civil rights movement, President Obama told a crowd of thousands Saturday, speaking from a site he said symbolized "the daring of America’s character."
In a speech at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where 50 years ago, police beat and tear-gassed protesters, Obama issued his call to action.
"Fifty years from 'Bloody Sunday,' our march is not yet finished. But we are getting closer," he said.
The March 7, 1965, violence against the peaceful civil rights advocates making the 50-mile march from Selma to Alabama’s capital of Montgomery shocked the country and ramped up calls for equal rights for black voters.
"The Americans who crossed this bridge were not physically imposing. But they gave courage to millions. They held no elected office. But they led a nation," Obama said.
That day, which came to be known as "Bloody Sunday," led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which guaranteed rights for millions of black voters across the South.
About 100 members of Congress, as well as former President George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush, stood under the sun at the bridge as Obama delivered his remarks. Crowd estimates from Selma's fire chief were as large as 40,000.
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a civil rights icon who partook in the historic march and was beaten so hard, he got a fractured skull, spoke before the president.
"This city, on the banks of the Alabama River, gave birth to a movement that changed this nation forever. Our country will never, ever be the same because of what happened on this bridge," Lewis said.
Obama expressed solidarity with those who marched alongside Lewis.
"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," he said.
After speaking, Obama crossed the Pettus Bridge, arms linked with Lewis. The first family, the Bushes and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy joined for the walk.
The speech from the nation’s first black president comes at a time when racial discrimination in the U.S. still makes regular headlines. This past week, a Justice Department investigation found patterns of racism from police in Ferguson, Missouri, where an unarmed black teen was killed by a white officer over the summer.
"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."
As he flew to Selma on Saturday, Obama signed legislation recognizing those who marched 50 years ago with Congressional Gold Medals — the highest honor given by Congress.
"What could be more American than what happened in this place?" he asked the cheering crowd on Saturday.
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