Thousands gathered to honor the 50th anniversary of the "Bloody Sunday"

By Jacqueline Andriakos
Updated March 07, 2015 04:55 PM
Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty

President Barack Obama called on Americans everywhere to continue the fight for justice that the protesters in Selma, Alabama, started 50 years ago.

The President spoke in front of a crowd of thousands on Saturday at the Selma 50th anniversary march. The event was organized to remember “Bloody Sunday,” when more than 600 peaceful protesters fell victim to police violence as they marched from Selma to Montgomery for equal voting rights on March 7, 1965.

“One afternoon 50 years ago, so much of our turbulent history – the stain of slavery and anguish of civil war, the yoke of segregation and tyranny of Jim Crow, the death of four little girls in Birmingham, and the dream of a Baptist preacher – met on this bridge,” he said after being welcomed with a standing ovation from Selma residents, congress members and elected officials.

“It was not a clash of armies, but a clash of wills – a contest to determine the true meaning of America,” he continued.

Obama reminded the crowd that the steps taken towards equality by leaders – mentioning Amelia Boynton, Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King Jr. – are far from over. “That’s what we celebrate here in Selma. That’s what this movement was all about – one leg in our long journey toward freedom.”

But the President also said that “action requires that we shed our cynicism,” and it’s important to remember and celebrate progress.

“If you think nothing’s changed in the past 50 years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or L.A. of the ’50s,” he said.

“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 30 years ago. To deny this progress, our progress, would be to rob us of our own agency, our responsibility to do what we can to make America better.”

“We honor those who walked so we could run,” he said before wrapping up his speech.

The President was joined on stage at the base of the bridge by Michelle Obama, former President George W. Bush, Laura Bush, Congresswoman Terri Sewell, Selma Mayor George Evans, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley and Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis, who Obama praised as one of his longtime heroes.

Obama took the podium immediately after an introduction and speech by Lewis, who experienced Selma firsthand as a leader of the march and someone who suffered the police brutality on that day.

The Alabama native, who also received a standing ovation for his remarks, encouraged the crowd to finish the push for equality and “recommit ourselves to the work.”

“Go out there, push and pull, until we redeem the soul of America,” he said.