By Schyler Cox
SELMA, Ala. – A man wearing a white sweatshirt with “Remember Trayvon Martin” written on the front poses for a picture, raising his first high.
Two children hold signs with “FREEDOM” written in their own handwriting, their faces solemn and unsmiling.
A young boy on his father’s shoulder looks out over a sea of faces, high above streets that pooled with blood 50 years ago.
Obama joined nearly 30,000 people to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, a day when police officers brutally attacked civil rights marchers as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River on March 7, 1965.
“First and foremost, we have to recognize that one day’s commemoration, no matter how special, is not enough,” President Barack Obama said to thousands of people who lined the streets of downtown Selma on Saturday, March 7. “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.”
More than 100 members of Congress from both political parties attended the commemoration, along with civil rights activists the Rev. Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and Rep. John Lewis , who as a young political leader suffered a fractured skull during Bloody Sunday.
Rep. Terry Sewell, one of the first African-American women elected to Congress from Alabama, said she hoped their experience of walking in the footsteps of John Lewis, with John Lewis, would remind them of the importance of the Voting Rights Act and provide the catalyst for Congress to strengthen the act further.
“At the end of the day, the best tribute we can give to those foot soldiers is to vote in every election,” Sewell said. “It is important for us to know that the story of Selma is the story of America. It tells us that ordinary Americans can collectively work to achieve extraordinary social change.”
Such was the theme of the afternoon, as the president called his audience to be active participants in the “constant work in progress” that is America.
Obama asked the crowd, “What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?”
The crowd responded with applause and cheers.
In the 50 years since the march, America has taken great strides towards achieving these “highest ideals,” reaching many milestones in integration, civil rights and voting equality.
However, these milestones do not mark a finish line for Selma, a city still struggling to survive.
In December 2014, Selma had an unemployment rate of 10.2 percent, nearly twice the state average of 5.5 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Combined with the 41.8 percent of people in Selma under the poverty line in 2009-2013, it becomes easy to ignore the gains of the past in light of how far Selma still needs to go.
But the president reminded the crowd “we can afford neither complacency nor despair” in the “pursuit of justice.”
“Everybody standing here today has their own Edmund Pettus bridge to cross,” said Elisabeth Omilami, daughter of noted civil rights leader Dr. Hosea Williams, who served as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s officer in the Southern Christian Leadership Council during the Civil Rights Era and later won election to the Georgia State Assembly in 1974.
“It might be at the water cooler when you hear the word n—– and you know that you should say something,” she said. “It might be back in the gathering halls where you see women mistreated and the sexual trafficking of women. It might be the homeless where you see people sleeping outside with nothing to eat. That’s your Edmund Pettus bridge.”
Omilami was 11 when she marched the 35 miles to Montgomery with her father in peaceful protest. She is the president of Hosea Feed the Hungry, a Christian international aid organization that has donated more than $3 billion to those in poverty since its founding in 1971 by the Rev. Hosea Williams.
Obama struck a balance between honoring those who marched on Bloody Sunday and warning his audience from thinking that the work is complete.
In order to take action, Americans must “shed our cynicism,” Obama said. “We do a disservice to the cause of justice by intimating that bias and discrimination are immutable, that racial division is inherent to America.”
However, he also admitted that the country’s racial history still impacts race relations today.
“What happened in Ferguson may not be unique, but it’s no longer endemic,” Obama said. “It’s no longer sanctioned by law or by custom. And before the Civil Rights Movement, it most surely was.”
Selma has long been a town defined by March 7, 1965. Some might call it inescapable.
But the people lining Broad Street in hopes of catching a glimpse of America’s first African-American president, the young girl proudly holding a handwritten “Education is Freedom” sign—the citizens of a town with a dark past—are not alone.
“Selma shows us that America is not the project of any one person. Because the single-most powerful word in our democracy is the word ‘We. We The People. We Shall Overcome. Yes We Can,’” Obama said. “That word is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone.”