In his 45-minute remarks at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Obama celebrated the civil rights activists who 50 years ago faced violence during demonstrations to urge passage of the Voting Rights Act.
“We gather here to celebrate them,” Obama said. “We gather here to honor the courage of ordinary Americans willing to endure billy clubs and the chastening rod; tear gas and the trampling hoof; men and women who despite the gush of blood and splintered bone would stay true to their North Star and keep marching towards justice.”
But Obama said America “cannot examine this moment in isolation,” and the march helped advance civil rights victories for other people, including gay Americans.
“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,” Obama said. “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 thirty 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.”
Obama made a direct comparison of Selma to demonstrations of gay Americans in decades past, recalling the Stonewall riots of 1969 and demonstrations in San Francisco upon the assassination of gay supervisor Harvey Milk.
“We’re the gay Americans whose blood ran in the streets of San Francisco and New York, just as blood ran down this bridge,” Obama said.
Making the case that “what it means to love America” is to invoke the spirit of change, Obama said gay Americans “came through those doors” opened by civil rights activists a half-century ago.
Obama’s inclusion of gay rights in his speech on Selma is similar to Vice President Joseph Biden’s assertion in remarks at a Human Rights Campaign event Friday the LGBT rights movement is the “same” as the broader struggle for civil rights.
Concluding his speech, Obama said the efforts of activists is still ongoing and an integral part of the nation’s history.
“Fifty years from Bloody Sunday, our march is not yet finished, but we’re getting closer,” Obama said. “Two hundred and thirty-nine years after this nation’s founding our union is not yet perfect, but we are getting closer. Our job’s easier because somebody already got us through that first mile. Somebody already got us over that bridge.”