On Selma anniversary, Obama says racial progress made but more needed

U.S. President Barack Obama observes the 50th anniversary of the civil rights confrontation in March 1965 in which police in Selma, Alabama beat protesters marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to demand voting rights for African Americans.

SELMA, ALABAMA, UNITED STATES (MARCH 7, 2015) (RESTRICTED POOL) – With a nod to ongoing U.S. racial tension and attempts to limit voting rights, President Barack Obama declared the work of the Civil Rights Movement advanced but unfinished on Saturday (March 7) on a visit to the Alabama bridge that spawned a landmark voting law.

Obama, the first black U.S. president, said discrimination revealed in a report about law enforcement practices in Ferguson, Missouri, this week showed a lot of work needed to be done on race in America, but he warned it was wrong to suggest that progress had not been made.

“Fifty years from Bloody Sunday, our march is not yet finished, but we’re getting closer,” Obama said, standing near the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where police and state troopers beat and used tear gas against peaceful marchers who were advocating against racial discrimination at the voting booth.

The event became known as “Bloody Sunday”. It prompted a follow-up march led by civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. that spurred the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In Saturday’s speech Obama described the event as “a contest to determine the true meaning of America.”

The anniversary comes at a time of renewed focus on racial disparities in the United States including discrimination among law enforcement against black citizens nationwide.

“Of course, a more common mistake is to suggest that Ferguson is an isolated incident; that racism is banished; that the work that drew men and women to Selma is now 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 our ears, and our hearts to know that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us. We know the march is not yet over. We know the race is not yet won,” Obama said.

The president also criticized efforts to limit voting rights in a clash between Republicans and Democrats across the country.

“Right now, in 2015, 50 years after Selma, there are laws across this country designed to make it harder for people to vote. As we speak, more of such laws are being proposed. Meanwhile, the Voting Rights Act, the culmination of so much blood, so much sweat and tears, the product of so much sacrifice in the face of wanton violence, the Voting Rights Act stands weakened, its future subject to political rancor.”

Obama was joined by his wife Michelle, daughters Malia and Sasha, and mother-in-law Marianne Robinson to mark the anniversary. President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, also attended.

At the end of his speech, Obama and civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis joined Bush and dozens of others in a symbolic march across the historic bridge.

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