Fifty Years After 'Bloody Sunday,' Obama Calls Selma a Place Where Meaning of America Was Defined

PHOTO: President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., March 7, 2015.PlayABC News
WATCH Selma 50th Anniversary: President Obama Urges Americans to 'Speak Out For What's Right'

Fifty years after civil-rights demonstrators were beaten and tear-gassed by police at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., the first African-American president took the stage at the bridge today to commemorate that major moment in American civil-rights history.

"In one afternoon 50 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," Obama said, addressing a crowd gathered there.

"It was not a clash of armies, but a clash of wills; a contest to determine the meaning of America," the president said.

While praising the accomplishments of the marchers at Selma and across the country in the civil rights movement, he also reminded his listeners that the work is not finished.

"We just need to open our eyes, and ears, and hearts, to know that this nation's racial history still casts its long shadow upon us," he said. "We know the march is not yet over, the race is not yet won, and that reaching that blessed destination where we are judged, all of us, by the content of our character -- requires admitting as much, facing up to the truth."

PHOTO: President Barack Obama, holding hands with Amelia Boynton, as they and the first family and others including Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga, left of Obama, walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. , Saturday, March 7, 2015.Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo
President Barack Obama, holding hands with Amelia Boynton, as they and the first family and others including Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga, left of Obama, walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. , Saturday, March 7, 2015.

Touching on the Justice Department's recent report finding rampant racism on the Ferguson, Mo., police department and a municipal government that used its police force to raise revenue, Obama said those findings were reminiscent of America before the late 1960s.

"The report's narrative was sadly familiar," Obama said. "It evoked the kind of abuse and disregard for citizens that spawned the Civil Rights Movement."

Despite the problems revealed in Ferguson, the president urged anyone listening not to forget the progress that's been made.

"We do a disservice to the cause of justice by intimating that bias and discrimination are immutable, or that racial division is inherent to America. If you think nothing's changed in the past fifty years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or Los Angeles of the 1950s," Obama said.

PHOTO: President Barack Obama points to visitors as they walk toward Marine One Saturday, March 7, 2015, in Montgomery, Ala. Butch Dill/AP Photo
President Barack Obama points to visitors as they walk toward Marine One Saturday, March 7, 2015, in Montgomery, Ala.

Obama appeared at the same bridge in Selma, Ala., addressing a crowd gathered there for a day of events marking the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches. He was introduced by John Lewis, the civil rights leader who now serves as a Democratic member of Congress.

"I would've told you you're crazy," Lewis said, if anyone had told him 50 years ago that he would return to Selma to introduce the first African-American president.

A large crowd forms near a stage where President Barack Obama will speak and then take a symbolic walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Saturday, March 7, 2015, in Selma, Ala. This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.Gerald Herbert/AP Photo
A large crowd forms near a stage where President Barack Obama will speak and then take a symbolic walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Saturday, March 7, 2015, in Selma, Ala. This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday."

The first family -- President Obama, first lady Michelle Obama, daughters Sasha and Malia, and their grandmother Marian Robinson -- traveled to Selma to join thousands who have gathered there for the day of events, including lawmakers and former president George W. Bush.

On March 7, 1965, civil-rights demonstrators led by now-Congressman John Lewis, D-Ga., and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee were met with police violence when attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma as they marched toward Montgomery. Those clashes, reported and televised across the nation and the world, formed one of the major historic moments of the American civil-rights movement.