Fifty years after non-violent protesters marched two-by-two over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, to fight for the passage of the Voting Rights Act, President Barack Obama said there is a need for better voter turnout and fewer laws that keep people from voting.
“If every new voter-suppression law was struck down today, we would still have, here in America, one of the lowest voting rates among free peoples,” Obama told a crowd of 40,000 on March 8, at the 50th Anniversary Jubilee in Selma.
One hundred members of Congress attended the jubilee, including Wisconsin Rep. Ron Kind.
“If we want to honor this day, let that hundred go back to Washington and gather four hundred more, and together, pledge to make it their mission to restore (the Voting Rights Act),” Obama said.
Meanwhile, Obama celebrated the legacy of the foot soldiers who were poked with cattle prods, trampled on by horses and beaten with billy clubs on Bloody Sunday because they paved the way for an African American president today.
“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 said.
Political leaders of both parties spoke at the jubilee, including Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, and Selma natives Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala. and Rep. John Lewis D-Ga.
Sewell is Alabama’s first black congresswoman and said foot soldiers like Lewis allowed her to believe she could make a difference, though, she said the next generation needs to carry the torch and vote.
“We cannot acknowledge how far we have come without acknowledging how far we need to go,” she said.
Lewis echoed Sewell’s call to action and said people often asked why he was returning to Selma for the anniversary. “We came to Selma to be renewed, we came to Selma to be inspired,” he said.
Lewis, who was 25 at the time, was one of many civil rights leaders who marched on Bloody Sunday 50 years ago.
Students and the movement’s youth were core contributors to many civil rights demonstrations.
“And that’s what young people here today and listening all across the country must take away from this day,” Obama said. “You are America.”
— Breane Lyga