Addressing some 40,000 people gathered in Selma, Alabama, on Saturday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday," President Obama connected America's history of racial injustice to contemporary problems including mass incarceration and police violence against people of color.
On March 7, 1965, supporters of black voting rights marching from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, were attacked by police with tear gas, whips, and clubs, and dozens were hospitalized. President Obama put the day in historical context: "In one afternoon fifty 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."
Fifty years later, the president reflected on what has changed, observing that his Justice Department's report on the police and municipal courts' racist mistreatment of black citizens in Ferguson, Missouri, "evoked the kind of abuse and disregard for citizens that spawned the Civil Rights Movement."
Unlike racial terror lynchings that were carried out with impunity, President Obama noted that what happened in Ferguson is no longer "sanctioned by law and custom." But neither is racism banished, he said. "We don’t need the Ferguson report to know that’s not true. We just need to open our eyes, and ears, and hearts, to know that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us."
Perhaps the longest shadow is cast on America's criminal justice system. Mass incarceration, excessive punishment, disproportionate sentencing of racial minorities, and police abuse of people of color reveal problems in our society that were framed in the era of lynching.
The president drew this connection in calling on Americans to "make sure our criminal justice system serves all and not just some." Echoing a central theme of the interim report of his Task Force on 21st Century Policing, President Obama identified the need to "raise the level of mutual trust that policing is built on."
"Together," he continued, "we can address unfair sentencing and overcrowded prisons, and the stunted circumstances that rob too many boys of the chance to become men, and rob the nation of too many men who could be good dads, and good workers, and good neighbors."
All Americans have a responsibility "to do what we can to make America better," the president said. "We know the march is not yet over, the race is not yet won, and that reaching that blessed destination where we are judged by the content of our character – requires admitting as much."
The paper of record in the state capital of Alabama, where President Obama received just 15 percent of the white vote in 2012, agreed with him that our country's greatest strength lies in "its extraordinary capacity to change, to right our wrongs, to remedy our injustices, to rise to the challenges of living up to the ideals in our Constitution." In an editorial on Saturday, the Montgomery Advertiser wrote, "It is anything but patriotic to accept injustice and inequality as inevitable failings that don't warrant ongoing effort to end them."