United States President Barack Obama spoke today in front of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. to commemorate the anniversary of ‘Bloody Sunday,’ when over 600 non-violent protesters, mostly black Americans, were attacked by Alabama state troopers as they attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights in 1965. The president spoke after civil rights leader and Georgia Congressman John Lewis, who was a protester in Selma. Lewis suffered a major head injury during the attack 50 years ago. Lewis recounted that horrible day during a speech at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church and before President Obama’s remarks. He stated:
“We saw these men putting on their gas masks,” Lewis said. “They came towards us, beating us with night sticks, trampling us with horses, releasing the tear gas. Several of us were hit by night sticks, trampled by horses, was hit in the head, right here, by the night stick…I thought I was going to die on that bridge. I thought I saw death. I don’t recall how we got back across that bridge, back to this church…But I refused to die.”
“I said in this church after the march: I don’t understand how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam but not to Alabama,” Lewis said.
President Obama followed Lewis’ remarks at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which is named after a man who served as a Senator from Alabama, a Confederate general during the Civil War and as a Grand Dragon within the Ku Klux Klan afterward. In 1940, the bridge was named after Pettus in order to send a message to Blacks who were seeking civil rights and social change.
President Obama delivered a rousing speech at the site bearing Pettus’ name. He said:
“There are places, and moments in America where this nation’s destiny has been decided. Many are sites of war – Concord and Lexington, Appomattox and Gettysburg. Others are sites that symbolize the daring of America’s character – Independence Hall and Seneca Falls, Kitty Hawk and Cape Canaveral.
Selma is such a place.
In one afternoon fifty years ago, so much of our turbulent history – the stain of slavery and anguish of civil war; the yoke of segregation and tyranny of Jim Crow; the death of four little girls in Birmingham, and the dream of a Baptist preacher – met on this bridge.
It was not a clash of armies, but a clash of wills; a contest to determine the meaning of America.
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. King, and so many more, the idea of a just America, a fair America, an inclusive America, a generous America – that idea ultimately triumphed.
As is true across the landscape of American history, we cannot examine this moment in isolation. The march on Selma was part of a broader campaign that spanned generations; the leaders that day part of a long line of heroes.
We gather here to celebrate them. 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 toward justice…”
Watch video of the speech above or read the entire transcript at Time.com.