President Barack Obama will call for a new generation of Americans to take up the torch kindled by civil rights leaders 50 years ago in Selma, Alabama, when he visits the historic town Saturday.
America’s first black president will stand at the famed Edmund Pettus Bridge, accompanied by wife Michelle and daughters Sasha and Malia, to argue that events half a century ago are not confined to history, a White House official said.
On March 7, 1965, some 600 peaceful voting rights activists were attacked by police with clubs and tear gas at the bridge, a seminal moment in America’s democracy.
The history of what happened at Selma on “Bloody Sunday” has recently returned to prominence thanks to an Oscar-nominated film starring actor David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King.
Obama has often said his journey from Chicago community activist to the White House would not be possible without the likes of King and Selma marcher and now Congressman John Lewis.
“He views Selma as something more than a piece of history we celebrate every once in a while,” a White House official told AFP.
“The whole family will be going, and he is eager to take the opportunity to remind his own daughters of their obligations to this country, and perhaps encourage their generation to pick up the torch that the marchers in Selma passed on to us.”
He will tell the crowd it is still true that “ordinary people who love their country can change it.”
– ‘Golden opportunity’ –
But Obama’s visit comes amid a series of scandals over police treatment of black Americans, including the shooting dead of an unarmed teenager by a white officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
A government investigation into the city’s police department on Wednesday found a widespread pattern of racial discrimination and multiple violations of citizens’ constitutional rights.
Obama’s speech also comes as civil groups warn voters’ rights passed after the Selma march are being systematically undercut in the courts and by local authorities.
In 2013, the Supreme Court made it possible for individual US states to change voting laws without federal approval, paving the way for a string of voter identification rules, mostly in the once segregated south.
Critics say the measures are designed to make it harder for poor and black voters to make their voices heard.
With two years before the 2016 presidential election, advocates want Obama’s trip to Selma to herald a renewed political push.
“This is a perfect time for the White House to try to get Americans focused on protecting voting rights,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery of the Brennan Center.
“It’s a golden opportunity. We are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act, we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Selma march, we are at a time when we’ve got to gear up for the next presidential election.”
A bipartisan bill that would effectively overturn the Supreme Court ruling was recently reintroduced to the House of Representatives and is expected to be brought to the Senate soon.
But with few White House-supported measures going through the Republican-controlled Congress passage is far from certain.
So far, the bill has been stalled in a House of Representatives committee.
“The voting rights act has passed by overwhelmingly bipartisan votes every time it has come to the floor,” said Deborah Vagins of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Once a vote is allowed to take place, Vagins said, it was likely to pass “Once we cross that hurdle, and I think that we will, it will have very strong support.”
Obama is also being encouraged to bypass Congress if necessary and issue executive orders to have federal agencies improve voter awareness and encourage voting.
“The president has the power of the pen,” said Austin-Hillery.