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Obama In Selma: 'The Race Is Not Yet Won'


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Fifty years ago this weekend, civil rights activists were beaten and bloodied as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. While the demonstrators were turned back that Sunday, their march helped galvanize the country into passing the 1965 Voting Rights Act. President Obama joined tens of thousands this weekend in celebrating that civil rights milestone. The president insists that the road that runs through Selma is long. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: There was no tear gas this weekend. The civil rights pioneers retraced their steps across the bridge - no nightsticks, no mounted police. Instead the marchers were accompanied by a flatbed truck hauling TV camera crews. Congressman John Lewis, who was a young leader of the march 50 years ago, paused halfway across the bridge to note those changes to the man walking alongside him. That man was President Obama. And as Lewis said earlier, his presence represents a big change too.


REPRESENTATIVE JOHN LEWIS: If someone had told me when we were crossing this bridge that one day I would be back here introducing the first African-American president, I would have said you're crazy. You're out of your mind. You don't know what you're talking about.

HORSLEY: Lewis and Obama both spoke to a crowd of 40,000 squeezed between old brick buildings with peeling paint at the foot of the bridge. The president called Lewis one of his heroes and said the marchers in Selma broke open doors of opportunity not just for African-Americans but for everyone.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If you think nothing has changed in the past 50 years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or Los Angeles of the 1950s.

HORSLEY: But while it would be wrong to deny that progress, Obama says, it would also be wrong to suggest that America has completely overcome the long shadow of its racial history. The voting rights act that grew out of that Bloody Sunday march has now been watered down. And events in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere show there is still work to be done to build trust between police and communities of color.


OBAMA: We know the march is not yet over. We know the race is not yet won.

HORSLEY: This is sensitive territory for Obama, who generally catches political heat on the rare occasions when he speaks frankly about race. Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani went so far as to question the president's love of America. Obama notes 50 years ago the very marchers in Selma we now celebrate were vilified as well.


OBAMA: Their lives were threatened, their patriotism challenged. And yet what could be more American than what happened in this place?

HORSLEY: Obama insisted patriotism requires facing uncomfortable truths. And sometimes it means shaking up the status quo in a country, he says, has always been about change.


OBAMA: That's what it means to love America. That's what it means to believe in America. That's what it means when we say America is exceptional.

HORSLEY: The president brought his daughters along with him, saying Selma is more than a museum piece. He says it represents a challenge for each generation that follows to move the country closer to its ideals. Alabama congresswomen Terri Sewell, who grew up in Selma, talked about inviting one of the Bloody Sunday marchers, Amelia Boynton, to the capital with her earlier this year.


REPRESENTATIVE TERRI SEWELL: As many people passed her in the hall they would say Ms. Boynton, we stand on your shoulders. We stand on your shoulders. Ms. Boynton looked up and said get off my shoulders. There's plenty of work to do.

HORSLEY: Obama says if Selma taught us anything, it's that work is never done. Everywhere in this country, he says, there is new ground to cover and new bridges to be crossed. Scott Horsley, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.