The PJ Tatler

Obama at Selma: 'This Nation's Racial History Still Casts Its Long Shadow Upon Us'

Presidents Obama and George W. Bush marched in Selma, Ala., for the 50th anniversary of the civil rights march today, with Democrats buzzing that Obama’s GOP predecessor stood and applauded the president’s call for Congress to pass a new Voting Rights Act.

Bush joined Obama on the stage along with Michelle Obama and Laura Bush, and the two presidents led the commemorative march.

In 2013, the Supreme Court found that Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which put special conditions on certain jurisdictions, didn’t reflect modern-day conditions and was no longer enforceable. Since then, Democrats have been wanting GOP leadership to bring a new VRA up for a vote.

“Because of campaigns like this, a Voting Rights Act was passed. Political and economic and social barriers came down,” Obama told the crowd in Selma, which the local fire department estimated at 40,000. “And the change these men and women wrought is visible here today in the presence of African Americans who run boardrooms, who sit on the bench, who serve in elected office from small towns to big cities; from the Congressional Black Caucus all the way to the Oval Office.”

Obama brought up the Justice Department report issued this week accusing the Ferguson Police Department of systematic discrimination.

“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,” he said. “It’s no longer sanctioned by law or by 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, that racial division is inherent to America. If you think nothing’s changed in the past 50 years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or Los Angeles of the 1950s. 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, this hard-won progress -– our progress –- would be to rob us of our own agency, our own capacity, our responsibility to do what we can to make America better.”

Still, the president said, “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.”

“…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 said.

If lawmakers “want to honor this day,” he added, they should go back to Washington and “pledge to make it their mission to restore that law this year.”

“President Bush is here in Selma and stood up and applauded when President Obama urged Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) tweeted. Bush signed a VRA renewal when he was in office, and Obama highlighted that in his speech.

“Obama and Bush, good sign for passing a new VRA, with section 5 in force. Seize the moment,” tweeted Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.).

The White House pool report noted that signs along the presidential motorcade route included “USA’s best George Bush Thanks.” Part of Obama’s speech was drowned out by drum-beating protesters changing “we want change.”

Dozens of members of Congress made the trip to Selma, as diverse as House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Sens. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) led the congressional delegation.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who as a young demonstrator on Bloody Sunday was viciously beaten, addressed the crowd, but notably shared his experiences in a series of tweets.