President Barack Obama spoke in Selma, Alabama, on Saturday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historic civil rights march on Bloody Sunday that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The speech came the same week the US Department of Justice released its scathing report on systemic racial bias in the Ferguson, Missouri Police Department. Obama reflected on the report's meaning during his speech:
Just this week, I was asked whether I thought the Department of Justice's Ferguson report shows that, with respect to race, little has changed in this country. And I understood the question, for the report's narrative was sadly familiar. It evoked the kind of abuse and disregard for citizens that spawned the Civil Rights Movement. But I rejected the notion that nothing's changed. What happened in Ferguson may not be unique, but it's no longer endemic, it's no longer sanctioned by law or by custom. And before the Civil Rights Movement, it most surely was.
We do a disservice to the cause of justice by intimating that bias and discrimination are immutable, that racial division is inherent in America. If you think nothing's changed in the past 50 years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or Los Angeles of the 1950s. 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 — this hard-won progress, our progress — would be to rob us of our own agency, our own capacity, our responsibility to do what we can to make America better.
Of course, a more common mistake is to suggest that Ferguson is an isolated incident, that racism is banished, that the work that drew men and women to Selma is now complete, and that whatever racial tensions remain are a consequence of those seeking to play the "race card" for their own purposes. We don't need the Ferguson report to know that's not true. We just need to open our eyes, and our ears, and our hearts to know that this nation's racial history still casts its long shadow upon us. We know the march is not yet over, we know the race is not yet won, we know that reaching that blessed destination where we are judged, all of us, by the content of our character requires admitting as much, facing up to the truth.
Obama's remarks reflected the theme reiterated throughout most of his speech: the US has come a long way since the days of marches in Selma and the rest of the Civil Rights Movement, but there's still a lot of work left to be done.