For President Barack Obama, returning to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on Saturday is as much about shaping the future as it is commemorating a seminal civil rights event 50 years ago.
Obama will be accompanied by his wife and daughters when he joins elected officials and civil rights leaders following the path of the demonstrators for voting rights who were met on March 7, 1965 by Alabama police wielding clubs and whips as they moved to break up the crowd.
In the days leading up to the anniversary, the president, who was 3 years old when the march took place, has emphasized the duty of the generations that have followed the pioneers of the civil rights movement to carry on the work.
“Selma is now. Selma is about the courage of ordinary people doing extraordinary things because they believe they can change the country, that they can shape our nation’s destiny,” Obama told a predominantly black crowd Friday at Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina. “And historically, it has been young people like you who helped lead that march.”
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Obama is staking his last two years as president on advancing the fortunes of middle-class Americans and especially on lifting the opportunities of young blacks and tackling racial inequality.
His address Saturday afternoon in Selma is so important to Obama that rather than farming out the text to his team of speechwriters, he’s writing some of it himself. Obama spent part of Thursday snowed in at the White House working on the draft, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Friday.
Obama visited for the 42nd anniversary of the march in 2007 when he was running against then-Senator Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. Addressing an overflow crowd at a historic black church, Obama said the fact he was a contender for president to become the nation’s first black president was one of the legacies of Selma.
The march, in which participants were beaten and bloodied, became a turning point in the U.S. civil rights movement and led to the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 five months later.
“The bridge for me is almost a sacred place,” Representative John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat, who suffered a skull fracture when state and local police moved on the crowd of marchers, said in an interview set for broadcast Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “Cause that’s where some of us gave a little blood and where some people almost died. But that bridge, what happened on that Sunday, have changed America forever.”
One sign of the changes is that the anniversary commemoration is a five-day event with corporate sponsors including Coca Cola Co. and AT&T Inc.
Even with the progress made since then, signs of the past remain. The bridge Obama will cross over the Alabama River still bears the name of a Ku Klux Klan leader, and the city has effectively become re-segregated with 42 percent of its residents living in poverty.
The Voting Rights Act also is coming under question in some states. In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the law that mandated states and localities with a history of minority voter suppression get permission from the Justice Department to change voting laws.
“We all know we still have work to do,” Obama said at Benedict College. “We’ve got to ensure not just the absence of formal legal oppression but the presence of an active, dynamic opportunity, good jobs that pay good wages, a good start for every child.”
Obama said in a radio interview broadcast on Friday, he hopes his daughters, Malia, 16, and Sasha, 13, realize that civil rights “is an unfinished project.”
“I say to my daughters the same thing I say to the young people who work for me, and that is it is a glorious task that we are given to continually try to improve this great country of ours,” he said in an interview taped Thursday with radio host Tom Joyner. “We shouldn’t shy away from that work and we shouldn’t be complacent about it.”
House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, of Maryland, said he’s using the occasion to push for passage of a strengthened Voting Rights Act to restore its power.
Hoyer will be among the approximately 100 members of Congress attending today’s commemoration. The group includes five Republicans from the Senate and 19 from the House, said Todd Stacy, a spokesman for Representative Martha Roby, an Alabama Republican. While House Speaker John Boehner will not be there, he will bestow the Congressional Gold Medal to Selma marchers at the Capitol, Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said. Lewis each year organizes a delegation of lawmakers to travel to Alabama for the march’s anniversary.