I had the privilege of joining President Barack Obama and a small cadre of Black journalists aboard Air Force One on a trip to Selma on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.
Sitting under the Seal of Air Force One yesterday, the President talked about the symbolism of that moment. It wasn’t lost on anyone on board, with special souvenirs and M&M candies affixed with the president’s signature, that none of us would be there without the blood spilled by those brave men and women half a decade earlier.
The president seemed hyper-aware of his position as a manifestation of progress. While some cynics may declare that “nothing has changed,” that sentiment doesn’t seem to be consistent with reality as we flew to what used to be the heart of American racial terror.
While President Obama’s election isn’t the catalyst of a post-racial America fiction, that doesn’t mean it was not transformational for the next generation. “I think that there’s no doubt that my election was a significant moment in the country’s racial history. I say that with all humility. If it hadn’t been me, it would have been somebody else. But a barrier was broken,” the president said. “I think that legacy will continue in the minds of children who are growing up never having known to this point a President who wasn’t black. And I think that shapes attitudes among young African American children, but also among all children. And I’d like to think that that will have a useful, lasting effect in terms of people’s attitudes about who can do what, and changes people’s images of what’s possible for any child in America.”
The president’s children, Sasha and Malia, were there to bear witness and honor those who made our self-determination, through the vehicle of voting, possible. “[T]he thing that makes it most important for me is not what I have to say, but rather giving Malia and Sasha a chance to soak in some of the history that has given them opportunities that 50 years ago never could have been imagined, and that like all young people they may tend to sometimes take for granted.”
Selma was a moment in which the world saw the ugly underbelly of white supremacy streaming live on national television.
Things have changed since 1965 even though with every tragic racial incident – from the L.A. Riots to Ferguson – American racial progress seems especially tenuous. Fifty years ago racist Jim Crow laws codified discrimination against Black people and denied their civil rights and basic human dignity. While the mechanics have changed, much of this bias has been embedded in our institutions, and at times it seems that while everything about race relations has changed, much remains the same.
President Obama noted this interesting timing; just days before his trip to Selma, the Department Of Justice confirmed, in a comprehensive report on the Ferguson police department, what the #BlackLivesMatter movement has been protesting around the nation since last summer. The 100 page report documents, in detail, the problem, and outlines a path forward in Ferguson and beyond.
“In some ways, the timing is good – the week that the report on Ferguson came out [is] around the same time that the task force that I put together in the aftermath of Ferguson [is] presenting its findings and recommendations too,” President Obama said.
Speaking about how “Selma is now,” the president said, “I think we have a great opportunity to not duplicate the spirit of 50 years ago, but at least draw inspiration from it and try to apply it in concrete ways that can restore trust between community and law enforcement around the country; that can refocus our efforts around criminal justice reform; that can spark a conversation around the continuing legacies in Jim Crow that led to impoverished and isolated communities; and that can provide some impetus for reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act,” President Obama said.
Too often, Americans decry the slow pace of change. Yet one could not question that a seismic racial transformation happened in the last 50 years as we watched the nation’s first Black president’s motorcade ride through Selma. Residents lined the suburban streets for just a brief glimpse of President Obama as the First Family made their way to a crowd of 40,000 people ready for a celebration.
“[T]here are places and moments in America where this nation’s destiny has been decided. Many are sites of war – Concord and Lexington, Appomattox, Gettysburg. Others are the sites that symbolize the daring of America’s character – Independence Hall, Seneca Falls, Kitty Hawk and Cape Canaveral. Selma is such a place, the president said opening his rousing speech at the foot of the famous bridge.
Fifty years ago my late grandfather Reverend Elmer Williams marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and this weekend I went to Selma with America’s President. Both of us are Black. Both of us would’ve been targets of violence in the Selma of yesteryear but, today, the President drove to and marched over this bridge, the staging for brutal confrontations, as the leader of the free world.
Zerlina Maxwell, J.D., is a political analyst and ESSENCE contributor. She writes about national politics, candidates, and specific policy and culture issues including domestic violence, sexual assault, victim blaming and gender inequality.