To mark 50 years since the pivotal "Blood Sunday" march that helped to usher in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, President Barack Obama gave a sweeping speech to an audience of thousands who had gathered to celebrate the important civil rights movement milestone.
"Two hundred and thirty-nine years after this nation's founding, our union is not yet perfect, but we are getting closer," Obama said during his speech that touched on race, inequality and threats to voting rights. "Our job's easier because somebody already got us through that first mile. Somebody already got us over that bridge."
President Barack Obama spoke at the Edmund Pettus bridge, where police beat hundreds of peaceful marchers as they tried to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. The protest became a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement with thousands of protesters joining Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders to march again weeks later, eventually sparking a movement that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 later that year.
During his speech Obama addressed challenges to the Voting Rights Act in some states. In recent years the Obama administration has fought states after they attempted to introduce what the administration argues are restrictive voting laws, such as requiring residents to bring an I.D. to vote or preventing early voting.
"The Voting Rights Act, the culmination of so much blood, so much sweat and tears...the Voting Rights Act stands weakened,"said Obama. "It's future subject to political rancor."
Obama called on the 100 members of congress attending today's event to return to Washington D.C. and fight to stregthen the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The President did mention that while more work needed to be done, the country has come a long way in race relations since the violent days of the Selma march. Citing the recent U.S. Department of Justice report on the Ferguson Police Force, which found a pattern of discriminatory policies, Obama said that this discriminatory policing is "no longer sanctioned by law or by custom, before the civil rights movement it surely was."
The mood this week in the town of around 20,000 has been celebratory, with children marching across the bridge on Friday and churches commemorating the event with speeches and hundreds to thousands of people arriving in the city to take part in the anniversary events. Many have posted images from the Oscar-nominated movie "Selma," that documents the events surrounding "Bloody Sunday."
As the celebrations continue, the bridge itself has become the source of renewed tension after a petition called for renaming the bridge. The Edmund Pettus bridge was named for a former U.S. Senator, who was a decorated confederate general and a leading member of the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama, according Smithsonian magazine. The petition was posted by Students-UNITE, a Selma-based youth organization that aims to "promote equality and restore justice through nonviolent direct action." In less than three weeks the petition has already gotten over 160,000 signatures online.
"They're responsible for too much death and misery. We don't need to honor them,"Reverend John Lowery, a civil rights leader who participated in the original march, told the Associated Press of the bridge's namesake. "I'm with the kids. Let's change it."
"Selma is currently 80 percent African American, with a black mayor and majority African-American local city officials," Students-UNITE wrote in the petition. "The name Edmund Pettus is far from what the city of Selma should honor."
Other veterans of the civil rights movement have issued statements on the anniversary of the famous march. US Congressman and veteran civil rights activist John Lewis created a video for students and teachers talking about his experience on "Bloody Sunday." In 1965, Lewis was near the front of the protest, when police advanced on the marchers.
"They came toward us beating us with nightsticks and bullwhips, trampling us with horses and releasing the tear gas," Lewis said in the video. "I was hit, beaten, knocked down, left bloody , unconscious. I thought I saw death. I thought I was going to die."
Lewis spoke to the crowd today before introducing Obama.
"There's still work left to be done,' Lewis said, according to the AP. "Get out there and push and pull until we redeem the soul of America."
In addition to Obama, former President George W. Bush and Alabama Governor Robert Bentley attended the event, according to the Associated Press.
Follow Gillian Mohney on Twitter: @gillianmohney