By Michael Nam
“Not only would I not be here because our society wouldn’t have changed as much as it has in 50 years,” President Obama told CBS reporter Bill Plante, “but this is also the source of inspiration that got me involved in public service in the first place.”
President Obama was just 4 years old on the day protesters marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.
“It was not a clash of armies, but a clash of wills; a contest to determine the true meaning of America,” the President told the crowd gathered at the bridge on Saturday. “And because of men and women like John Lewis, Joseph Lowery, Hosea Williams, Amelia Boynton, Diane Nash, Ralph Abernathy, C.T. Vivian, Andrew Young, Fred Shuttlesworth, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and so many others, the idea of a just America and a fair America, an inclusive America, and a generous Americathat idea ultimately triumphed.”
Though he was just a boy growing up in Hawaii, Obama said the gravity of what happened thousands of miles away is not lost on himin many places in the South, the interracial relationship between his parents would have been illegal.
The President went on to express to the veteran reporter, as they walked through museum displays of the momentous civil-rights march, his admiration for the ordinary citizens who stood up to “some of the most powerful forces in our society.”
Bill Plante himself was a 27-year-old journalist covering Selma a half-century ago. While much of the nation was less than mindful of the harsh realities of the Jim Crow South, Plante spoke to The Associated Press prior to the anniversary, recounting just how significant the civil-rights movement was.
“Blacks were fearful 50 years ago and they needed somebody like a Dr. King to mobilize them,” Plante said. “Now they’re very much involved in the political life of the city and the county. Which is not to say there is no more racismof course there is. That will probably always be the case everywhere. But it sure is a lot better than it was 50 years ago.”
U.S. Representative John Lewis (D-Ga.) was only 25 years old when he took part in the march. He recapped the event, setting the scene of the peaceful march that became known as ‘Bloody Sunday’ after authorities attacked the protesters, and highlighted the changes in the intervening decades. Lewis introduced President Obama: “If someone told me 50 years ago I’d be back on this bridge introducing a Black President of the United States, I’d have said, ‘You’re crazy.'”
Drawing across the generations, a daughter of a Selma marcher came to the anniversary to stand for her elderly father. Lavonoia Perryman, of Detroit, told the local CBS station, “My dad is from Selma. My honor will be able to march across the bridge where the Perryman family, he’s 90 years old and he’s not able to march this time, but because of the movement I am able to march here in Selma, Alabama.” She then went on, as many did during the commemoration, to speak of the work yet left to do.
The President himself echoed this sentiment in his speech from the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
“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.”