On 50th anniversary, Selma merits conversation

Mary Catherine Connors

I did not have the opportunity to see President Obama speak last Saturday in Selma on the anniversary of “Bloody Sunday.” Yet the glorious power of YouTube and a filmy Mac screen allowed me to watch the president stand in front of the Edmund Pettus Bridge and summarize the last 50 years of both victories and setbacks that surround our current state of racial equality. In his speech, President Obama assumed a less-than-presidential demeanor and was real and raw in his manner. He let down any glossy, well-coached exterior that he still carries at this point in his term and spoke to the people in a way that makes me think of him as a president and a person instead of categorically as a politician.

President Obama even shared the spirit of Baptist minister Martin Luther King Jr. who stood on the same bridge two days after the original march from Selma. “For we believe in the power of an awesome God, and we believe in this country’s sacred promise,” said the President.

I truly appreciate the president’s trip to Selma. He remembered that our most recent battles in war do not deal with ammunition or foreign lands, but in a “clash of wills; a contest to determine the meaning of America.” He refers to both past and current battles for civil and human rights.

After pictures were posted to various news sources and social media, it was clear that the trip to Selma was for a purpose beyond the events of 50 years ago. Citizens wore T-shirts with the names of the victims of Ferguson. Two women held signs in the air that called for immigration reform and “solidarity.” Other men trailed down the road marching-band style, holding a large sheet of butcher paper that cited a need for improving the rights of previously-incarcerated people. A compilation of these pictures describes a sort of meeting of the minds for modern civil rights activists.

“And with effort, we can protect the foundation stone of our democracy for which so many marched across this bridge – and that is the right to vote.” Obama said. With this, the President moved from the past to the modern 2015. The Los Angeles Times, among other publications, note how strange it is that the bridge stands for an epic struggle for the right to vote, yet we as a country still have some of the lowest voter turnout rates for a democracy, hovering around 60 percent according to FairVote.org. Although we don’t enforce voting like some other countries, thinking about Selma makes this percentage seem a little embarrassing. Our own University’s voting turnout is about half that at 30 percent.

These issues do not isolate themselves to Selma – or even Alabama. Recent events have marked that these issues include every state and city. Just last week on the popular television show “Scandal,” Kerry Washington acted in an episode mimicking the events of Ferguson.

Speeches about Selma, whether they were made at the 2015 Oscars or at the foot of the famous bridge itself, are important for current discourse. We must continue the conversation – in whatever medium it delivers. 

Mary Catherine Connors is a sophomore majoring in economics and mathematics. Her column runs weekly.