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Live Coverage And Analysis Of The 50th Anniversary Of March On Selma
Aired March 7, 2015 - 15:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to downtown Selma, Alabama. I'm Fredricka Whitfield. The program is just about to begin involving the president of the United States. Right now is Alabama Governor Bentley who is speaking. This is part of the introduction. Let me tell you how excited the crowd was, the thousands here were very excited when they saw former president George W. Bush, Laura Bush, and then walking right behind them, Michelle Obama and the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama, all taking their positions there, the front row there, on the podium.
And then right next to President Barack Obama, of course, is John Lewis, just a 25-year-old man, the president of the student nonviolent coordinating committee on Bloody Sunday, March 7th, 1965, when he led 300 marchers across the Edmund Pettus bridge and was met with violence of night sticks from police and Alabama state troopers, and he was badly beaten. And many have called him the most courageous, one of the most courageous civil right foot soldiers ever since, now a U.S. congressman.
He is sitting right alongside the president of the United States. The president has said many times that he admires, he is, John Lewis is the president's hero. And, likely, we are going to hear that once again when the president takes to the microphone there. He has a 40 minute speech.
We have been told, of course, he has speech writers. But we also know, we know from somebody who knows the president well, our own political commentator, Van Jones, that this president likes to write a lot of his speeches. And this is one that is likely to be so powerful, so compelling, that you will be able to hear the president's voice in the writing of this speech.
Van Jones with me now. This really is a remarkable event. It's a culmination of so many emotions for so many people. People come here expecting that and it is going to deliver.
VAN JONES, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think it is. I thought it was really interesting. You have a governor walk in. You have President Bush walk in. You have President Obama walk in. John Lewis came last. John Lewis, a giant actually -- nobody does that. To follow two presidents on to a stage and the crowd responded getting bigger and bigger. And when John Lewis came up there, he saw that the huge reception.
I think this speech, he has an opportunity to move the ball on two key issues. Voting rights. I think it's obvious that you talk about voting rights. Also, this whole question of the next generation. And this movement around, you know, black lives matter. And how does he bring in this young generation to let them know, I understand you want better policing. You want better education. If he can connect to that moment in the past, but bring in the new movement, there's a new civil rights movement, that in post-Ferguson, post-Trayvon Martin, but they have not necessarily felt that they have been embraced yet, the way they want to be by the country. The president can help with that and I think he needs to.
WHITFIELD: And just looking at the stage, there is meaning behind everyone who is sitting on that stage.
JONES: Yes, there is.
WHITFIELD: You talked about the order, which is a remarkable observation to make. The order in which people walked in. When you look on stage, you have the former president and first lady, and you have the sitting president and first lady. You have John Lewis, the mayor of Selma, an African-American, the first African-American mayor of Selma. And then right behind Michelle and Barack Obama is Congresswoman Terry Sewell, the first Alabama congresswoman, and she's from Selma. This is her home.
WHITFIELD: And she has a remarkable story of ascension, doesn't she?
JONES: Yes, she really does. And so many of the people here, you know, see her as this kind of home grown success story. And you know, she carries herself with so much Grace, so much dignity, so much clarity. And I think that's really what you get when you come to Selma. And I think that's really why the president's coming here has created this huge sensation.
I mean, I don't know that we can show the numbers of people who are here. I mean, we may have doubled the size on this population. Hard to know. There's so many people here. But, you know, these cutting edge issues for race now, you know, you were talking earlier that some of the numbers, statistics show that almost --
WHITFIELD: One in five children living in poverty, 60 percent living in poverty, and the numbers are dismal talking about those below poverty.
JONES: Below poverty. So right here. So there is a need for him to speak to that. At the same time, you know, this wound of race, which sometimes gets better and sometimes gets worse, I think that the country has done relatively well. You have gone from the lifetime living memory African-Americans can't use a public restroom to an African-American being president.
Some people feel that, you know, the president got a hard time, there was racial resentment of him. I think it takes a country a while to absorb these changes, and you take one step forward, two back, you make a leapfrog forward. And I hope this speech that part of making that leapfrog forward.
WHITFIELD: And now this is the native daughter, I should say, of Selma, this is the congresswoman Terry Sewell. People are very proud of her. She is ivy league educated, Princeton, Harvard, she went on to Wall Street, had potential to make big money, she walked away from that and said public service that is my calling.
Still with us, the presidential historian, Douglas Brinkley out of Austin.
And Doug, you know, I think Van made an extraordinary observation. It's something that you probably observed, he observed, I wouldn't because you all follow the presidency unlike anybody else I know. But to take notice of the order of the former president and first lady walking in. Followed by the president and first lady, and then by John Lewis.
WHITFIELD: How remarkable is that for you, Douglas?
DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Well, it's -- look, John Lewis is an American hero and an icon. He's from Pike County, Alabama. So, this is his home state even though he's a representative from Georgia. And history is going to see him as one of the greats.
He is in the same league John Lewis as Martin Luther King or Frederick Douglas, (INAUDIBLE) Washington, on the African-American front. And the president has previously said -- he's not only the bravest man I know, John Lewis, but the sweetest man I know. And that's what people love about John Lewis.
He is the moral voice of Capitol Hill. He's somebody who puts his Christianity first in the head of politics in a sense of message of universal love so the crowd's going to go wild whenever he's evoked in the president's speech today.
JONES: And we'll also be hearing from him, I understand, I cannot imagine what his heart will feel like, John Lewis. He is going to literally be just a few feet from where he was beaten and to be standing there next to the first African-American president of the United States, redeemed by -- listen, when you're beaten within an inch of your life, you're not thinking out 50 years, you are thinking about 15 minutes.
WHITFIELD: And I spoke with so many foot soldiers who said just that. They didn't even actually think they never live through to ever see the fruits of their labor.
WHITFIELD: But they knew it was a sacrifice they were willing to make. Andy Young made that point. Perhaps you saw the piece earlier where he said, you know what? We were not sure if we are going to live. But Dr. Martin Luther King always said if you don't have something worth dying for, you're not fit to live. So remarkable. JONES: You are not fit to live.
And I think one thing I want also to bring in the conversation, you know, when you talk about this new young movement, they have a book they read call "the new Jim Crow" and it was written by a woman named Michelle Alexander. And it has become this as the bible for these young people. And it talks about mass incarceration. It talked about how the school to prison pipeline, with way too many African-American and poor kids wind up in prison, but maybe they could have been helped in another way and wanted for the jobs.
That new Jim Crow, that -- which is a sense of incarceration industry has gotten out of control. There's a bipartisan movement now to do something about it. You have Republicans like Rick Perry and Rand Paul and others speaking out against this.
If the president actually embraces Republicans and the black lives matter movement at the same time by speaking about incarceration, that would be a brilliant move in the speech politically but also morally. The "New Jim Crow" by Michelle Alexander has become the bible of this new generation.
WHITFIELD: And, Douglas, everything is planned, you know, down to the nth degree here. And we saw the Obama's daughters make their entrance. They are the ones who emerged first. And I felt that was symbolic of the message. One of the messages that the president wants to make about the next generation, the generation of his daughters.
He just said recently at a African-American reception marking a black history month for February saying that my daughters and their generation, they will have their own marches, they will have their own struggles to fight, and I felt like when they emerged out here, Douglas, that that was a little foreshadowing perhaps of one of the messages that the president wants to make, Am I reading too much into it?
BRINKLEY: No, you're absolutely right. And it reminds me of David's book, "the children" about the Nashville movement, really always about the children, and that's going to be a crucial message, I think, of the president.
And we're talking, Van talked about incarceration. Keep in mind, this was not the only times John Lewis was beaten on Bloody Sunday, I mean, he was beaten all the time as a freedom rider, and ended up going to jail, I think, 24 or 25 different times all for voting rights, and to beat Jim Crow back.
WHITFIELD: And Douglas, I hate to interpret you, but Congressman John Lewis now taken to the podium here. Once a 25-year-old man as you underscored that message, beaten badly here on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, now a U.S. congressman.
REP. JOHN LEWIS (D), GEORGIA: Thank you, thank you, my sisters, colleagues, for the kind words of introduction.
My beloved brothers and sisters, members of the American family on this day, we as a nation have a great deal to be thankful for. Jimmie Lee Jackson! Jimmie Lee Jackson whose death inspired the Selma march along with so many others did not make to see this day. But you and I are here. We can bear witness to the distance we've come and the progress we've made in 50 years. And we must use this moment to recommit ourselves to do all we can to finish the work that still is left to be done. Get out there. And push and pull and to be redeemed the soul of America.
Now I want to thank President Barack Obama and Mrs. Obama, President George Bush and Mrs. Bush for being here today. I want to thank all of the members of the cabinet and the administration who are here, my colleagues in the Congress, all of the elected officials including the great governor Robert Bentley, including the mayor of Selma, George Evans, and all of the American people. I would like for all members of the Congress in our delegation just to stand.
LEWIS: Thank you. We want to thank the faith and politics institute for bringing us together one more time. And the core leaders to our delegation, Senator Tim Scott, Senator Cherry Brown (ph), Representatives (INAUDIBLE), thank you so much.
LEWIS: It is good to see (INAUDIBLE) with our first contact when we came to Selma in 1962. Registering people to vote here long before we arrived, also glad to see the daughter of governor George Wallace here, Peggy Wallace-Kennedy, thank you for being here, Peggy.
LEWIS: And I want to thank each and every one of you who marched across the bridge on bloody Sunday. You didn't have to do it, but you did it. Thank you!
LEWIS: I tell you. It's good to be in Selma one more time, just one more time.
People often ask me, why do you come back? What purpose does it serve? We come to Selma to be renewed. We come to be inspired. We come to be reminded that we must do the work that justice and equality calls us to do.
On March 7th, 1965, a few innocent children are gone, a few clutching a simple bag, a plain purse, or a backpack were inspired to walk 50 dangerous miles from Selma to Montgomery to demonstrate the need for voting rights in the state of Alabama.
On that day, on that day, 600 people marched into history. Walking two by two, down the sidewalk. Not interfering with the trading commerce. Not interfering with traffic. We are trying a military discipline. We were so peaceful. So quiet. No one saying a word. We were beaten, tear gassed, some of us left bloody right here on this bridge, 17 of us hospitalized that day. But we never became bitter or hostile. We kept believing the truths we stood for would have the final say.
LEWIS: This city on the banks of the Alabama river gave birth to the movement that changed this nation forever. Our country will never ever be the same because of what happened on this bridge.
LEWIS: Eight days after bloody Sunday, the president of the united states, Lyndon B. Johnson delivered one of the most powerful speeches ever made by any president on the question of voting rights. He said, the time of justice has come. I believe sincerely that no force can hold it back. (INAUDIBLE) it is right in the eyes of man and God that it should come. He said at time history and fate meet in a single time and single place to shape a turning point a man on his search freedom.
He went on to say so it was conquered, so it was and (INAUDIBLE) run in Congress. So it was that it matters, so it was in Selma, Alabama each of us must go back to our homes after the celebration and build on a legacy of the march in 1965.
The Selma movement is saying today that we all can do something. So I said to you, don't give up on something that has great meaning to you. Don't get lost in a sea of despair. Stand up for what you believe. Because in the final analysis, we are one people, one family, the human family. We all live in the same house, the American house, the (INAUDIBLE) house.
We are black, we are white, we are Hispanic, Asian-American, Native American, but we are one people. Thank you.
LEWIS: My beloved brothers and sisters, it is a great honor for me to return to my home state of Alabama, to present to you not to introduce to you, but to present to you the president of the United States.
(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)
LEWIS: If someone told me crossing this bridge that one day I would be back here introducing the first African-American president, I would have said you're crazy, you're out of your mind. You don't know what you're talking about. President Barack Obama.
(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You know I love you back.
It is a rare honor in this life to follow one of your heroes. And John Lewis is one of my heroes. Now, I have to imagine that when a younger John Lewis woke up that morning 50 years ago and made his way to brown chapel, heroics were not on his mind. A day like this was not on his mind. Young folks with bed rolls and backpacks were milling about. Veterans of the movement trained newcomer in the tactics of nonviolence. The right way to protect yourself when attacked. A doctor described what tear gas does to the body. While marchers scribbled down instructions for contacting their loved ones.
The air was thick with doubt, anticipation, and fear. And they comforted themselves with the final verse of the final hymn they sung. No matter what made be the test, God will take care of you. Lean weary one upon his breast, God will take care of you. And then knapsack stocked with an apple, a toothbrush, and a book on government, all you need for a night behind bars. John Lewis led them out of the church on a mission to change America.
President and Mrs. Bush, Governor Bentley, Mayor Evans, Congresswoman Sewell, Reverend Strong, members of Congress, elected officials, foot soldiers, friends, fellow Americans, as John noted, there are places and moments in America where this nation's destiny has been decided. Many are sites of war, conquered in Lexington, 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, 50 years ago, so much of our turbulent history, the anguish of civil war, the yolk of segregation and tyranny of Jim Crow, the death of four little girls in Birmingham, the dream of a Baptist preacher, all that history meant on this bridge.
It was not a clash of armies, but a clash of wills. A contest to determine the true meaning of America. And because of men and women like John Lewis, Joseph Lowry, Jose Williams, Amelia (INAUDIBLE), Diane Nash, (INAUDIBLE), ct Vivian (ph), Andrew Young, Fred Shuttlesworth (ph), Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. So many others, the idea of a just America and a fair America, and inclusive America and a generous America, that idea ultimately triumphed.
Now, as it's 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 despite the gush of wood and splintered bone would stay true to their north star and keep marching towards justice.
They did a scripture instructed, rejoice and hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. In the days to come, they went back again and again, when the trumpet call sounded for more to join, the people came, black and white, young and old, Christian and Jew, waving the American flag, singing the same anthems full of faith and hope. A white newsman, Bill Plante who covered the marches then and here with us today, quick (ph) that the growing number of white people lowered the quality of the singing.
OBAMA: To those who marched, though, those old gospel songs must have never sounded so sweet. In time, their chorus would well up and reach president Johnson. And he would send them protection and speak to the nation, echoing their call for America the world to hear. We shall overcome.
What enormous faith these men and women had. Faith in God, but also faith in America. The Americans who crossed this bridge, they were not physically imposing, but they gave courage to millions.
They held no elected office, but they led a nation. They marched as Americans who endured hundreds of years of brutal violence. Countless daily indignities, but they did not seek special treatment, just the equal treatment promised to them a century before.
What they did here will reverberate through the ages. Not because the change they won was preordained, not because their victory was complete, but because they proved that nonviolent change is possible. That love and hope can conquer hate.
As we commemorate their achievement, we are well-served to remember that at the time of the marches, many in power condemned rather than praised them. Back then, they were called communists or half breeds or outside agitators. Sexual and moral degenerates, and worse, called everything but the name their parents gave them.
Their faith was questioned. Their lives were threatened. Their patriotism challenged. And yet what could be more American than what happened in this place?
OBAMA: What could more profoundly vindicate the idea of America than plain and humble people up sung, the downtrodden, the dreamers not of high station, not born to wealth or privilege, not one of religious tradition, but of many coming together to shape their country's course. What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this? What greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished? That we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideas.
(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)
OBAMA: That's why Selma's not some out liar in the American experience. That's why it's not a museum or a static monument to behold from a distance. It is, instead, the manifestation of a creed written into our founding documents.
We, the people, in order to form a more perfect union, we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. These are not just words. They are a living thing, a call to action, a road map for citizenship, and an insistence in the capacity of free men and women to shape our own destiny. For founders like Franklin and Jefferson, leaders like Lincoln and
FDR, the success of our experiment in self-government rested on engaging all of our citizens in this work. And that's what we celebrate here in Selma. That's what this movement was all about. One leg in our long journey towards freedom.
OBAMA: The American instinct that led the men and women to pick up the torch and cross this bridge, that's the same instinct the move patriots to chose revolution over tyranny, it is the same instinct that drew immigrants from march across the bridge, that's the same that led immigrants from across oceans and the Rio Grande, that led women to reach for the ballot, workers to organize against an unjust status quo, the same instinct that led us to plant a flag if you are dreamer and on the surface of the moon.
It's the idea held by generations of citizens, who believe that America is a constant work in progress, who believe that loving this country requires more than just singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths. It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what is right. To shake up the status quo. That's America.
OBAMA: That's what makes us unique. That's what cements our representation as a beacon of opportunity.
Young people behind the iron curtain would see Selma and eventually tear down that wall. Young people at Toledo (ph) would hear Bobby Kennedy talk about ripples of hope and eventually banish the scourge.
Young people in firm went to prison rather than submit to military rule. They saw what John Lewis had done. From the streets of Tunis to (INAUDIBLE) in Ukraine, this generation of young people can draw strength from this place where the powerless could change the world's greatest power and push their leaders to expand the boundaries of freedom.
They saw that idea made real right here in Selma, Alabama. They saw that idea manifest itself here in America. Because of campaigns like this, voting rights act was passed. Political and economic and social barriers came down. And the change these men and women brought is visible here today in the presence of African-Americans who run board rooms, who sit on the bench, who serve in elected office from small towns to big cities, from the congressional black caucus all the way to the oval office.
(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)
OBAMA: Because of what they did, the doors of opportunity swung open not just for black folks, but for every American. Women marched through those doors. Latinos marched through those doors, Asian- Americans, gay Americans, Americans with disabilities, they all came through those doors. (APPLAUSE)
OBAMA: Their endeavors gave the south the chance to rise again, not by reasserting the path, but by transcending the path. What a glorious thing, Dr. King might say. What a solemn debt we owe. Which leads us to ask just how might we repay that debt?
First and foremost, we have to recognize one day is commemoration, no matter how special is not enough. If Selma taught us anything, it's that our work is never done. The American experiment in self- government gives work and purpose to each generation. Selma teaches us as well that action requires that we shed our cynicism. For when it comes to the pursuit of justice, we can afford neither complacency nor despair.
You know, just this week, I was asked whether I thought the department of justice's Ferguson report shows that with respect to race little has changed in this country. And I understood the question. The report's narrative was sadly familiar. It evoked the kind of abuse and disregard for citizens that spawned the civil rights movement.
But I reject the notion that nothing's changed. What happened this Ferguson may not be unique, but it's no longer endemic, it is no longer sanctioned by law or by custom. And before the civil rights movement, it most surely was.
OBAMA: We do a disservice to the cause of justice by intimating that bias and discrimination are immutable, that racial division is inherent in America. If you think nothing's changed in the past 50 years, ask someone who lived through the Selma or Chicago or Los Angeles of the 1950s. Ask the female CEO who once might been assigned to the secretary pool, if nothing has changed. Ask your gay friend if it's easier to be out and proud now in America than it was 30 years ago.
To deny this progress this hard one progress, our progress would be to rob of us our own agency, our own capacity, our responsibility to do what we can to make America better.
Of course, a more common mistake is to suggest that Ferguson is an isolated incident, that racism is banished, that the work that drew men and women to Selma is now complete, and that whatever racial tensions remain are a consequence of those seeking to play the race card for their own purposes. We don't need a Ferguson report to know that's not true. We just need to open our eyes and our ears and our hearts to know this nation's racial history still casts its long shadow upon us.
We know the march is not yet over. We know the race is not yet won. We know 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.
We are capable of bearing a great burden. James Baldwin once wrote, once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is, there's nothing America can't handle if we actually look squarely at the problem. And this is work for all Americans, not just some, not just whites, not just blacks.
If we want to honor courage of those who marched that day, then all of us are called to possess their moral imagination. All of us will need to feel as they did the fierce urgency of now. All of us need to recognize as they did that change depends on our actions, on our attitudes. The things we teach our children. If we make such an effort, no matter how hard it may sometimes seem, laws can be passed and conscious can be stirred and consensus can be built.
With such an effort, we can make sure our criminal justice system serves all and not just some. Together, we can raise the level of mutual trust policing is built on, the idea that police officers are members of the community and risk their lives to protect and citizens and Ferguson and New York and Cleveland, they just want the same thing young people here marched for 50 years ago, the protection of the law.
OBAMA: Together, we can address unfair sentencing and overcrowded prisons and the stunted circumstances that robbed too many boys of the chance to become men and robbed the nation of too many men who could be good dads and good workers and good neighbors.
OBAMA: With effort, we can roll back poverty and the roadblocks to opportunity. You know, Americans do not accept a free ride for anybody. Nor do we believe in equality of outcomes, but we do expect equal opportunity, and if we really mean it, if we are not just giving lip service to it, but mean it and are willing to sacrifice for it, then, yes, we can make sure every child gets an education suitable to this new century, one that expands imaginations and lifts sights, and gives those children the skills they need.
We can make sure every person willing to work has the dignity of a job and fair wage and a real voice and sturdier rungs on that ladder into the middle class. And with effort, we can protect the foundation of our democracy for which so many marched across this bridge, and that is the right to vote.
OBAMA: Right now, in 2015, 50 years after Selma, there are laws across this country designed to make it harder for people to vote. As we speak, more such laws are being proposed. Meanwhile the voting rights act, the culmination of so much blood, so much sweat and tears, the product of so much sacrifice in the face of want and violence, the voting rights act stands weakened. Its future subject to political ranker. How can that be?
The voting rights act was one of the crowning achievements of our democracy. The result of Republican and democratic efforts. President Reagan signed renewal when he was in office. President George W. Bush signed its renewal when he was in office. One hundred members of Congress have come here today to honor people who are willing to die for the right to protect it. If we want to honor this day, let that hundred go back to Washington and gather 400 more and together pledge to make it their mission to restore that law this year. That's how we honor those on this bridge.
OBAMA: Of course, our democracy is not the task of Congress alone or the courts alone or even the president alone. If every new voter suppression law was struck down today, we would still have here in America, one of the lowest voting rates of free peoples.
Fifty years ago, registering to vote here in Selma and much of the south meant guessing the number of jelly beans in a jar, the number of bubbles on a bar of soap. It meant risking dignity and sometimes your life. What's our excuse today for not voting? How do we so casually discard the right for which so many fought? How do we so fully give away our power, our voice in shaping America's future? Why are we pointing to somebody else when we could take the time just to go to the polling places.
(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)
OBAMA: We give away our power. The march so much changed in 50 years. We have endured war and we fashioned peace. We've seen technological wonders that touch every aspects of our lives. We take for granted conveniences that our parents could have scarcely imagined. But what has not changed is the imperative of citizenship. That willingness of a 26 -year-old deacon or a Unitarian minister or a young mother of five to decide they love this country so much that they'd risk everything to realize its promise.
That's what it means to love America. That's what it means to believe in America. That's what it means when we say America is exceptional. For we were born of change. We broke the old (INAUDIBLE), declaring ourselves (INAUDIBLE) bloodlines but endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights.
We secure our rights and responsibilities to a system of self- government, of and by and for the people. That's why we argue and fight with so much passion and conviction because we know our efforts matter. We know America is what we make of it.
Look at our history. We are Louis and Clark and (INAUDIBLE) pioneers who braved the unfamiliar, followed by a stampede of farmers and miners, and entrepreneurs and hucksters. That's our spirit. That's who we are. We are merchants of truth in (INAUDIBLE). Women who could as much as any man in (INAUDIBLE). We are Susan B. Anthony who shook the system until the law reflected the truth. That is our character.
We are the immigrants who stowed away on ships to reach the shores, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, holocaust survivors, the lost boys of Sudan. We're the hopeful strivers who cross the Rio Grande because we want our kids to know a better life. That's how we came to be.
We're the slaves who little the White House and the economy of the south. We're the ranch hands and cowboys who opened up the west, the countless labors who laid rail, raised skyscrapers, and organized for workers' rights. We're the fresh faced GIs who fought to liberate a continent, and we're the Tuskegee airmen and Navajo code talkers, and the Japanese-Americans who fought for this country even as their own liberty had been denied.
We're the firefighters who rushed into those buildings on 9/11. We're the volunteers who signed up to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. We're the gay Americans whose blood ran in the streets of San Francisco and New York just as blood ran down this bridge. We are story tellers, writers, poets, artists who a bore unfairness and despise hypocrisy, and give voice to the voiceless, and tell truths that need to be told.
We're the inventers of gospel and jazz and blues, blue grass and country and hip hop and rock and roll, and our very own sounds with all the sweet sorrow and reckless joy of freedom. We are Jackie Robertson enduring scorn and spiked cleats and pitches going to his head and stealing home in the world series anyway.
OBAMA: We are the people wrote of who build our temples for tomorrow strong as we know how. We are the people Emerson wrote who for truth and honor's sakes stand fast and suffer long, never tired so long as we can see far enough.
That's what America is. Not stock photos or air brushed history or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American than others.
OBAMA: We respect the past, but we don't pine for the past. We don't fear the future. We grab for it. America's not some fragile thing. We are large in the words of Whitten, containing multitudes. We are boisterous and diverse and full of energy, young in spirit.
That's why someone like John Lewis at the ripe old age of 25 could lead a mighty march. And that's what the young people here today and listening all across the country must take away from this day.
You are America. Unconstrained by habit and convention. Unencumbered by what is because you're ready to see what ought to be. For everywhere in this country, there are first steps to be taken. There's new ground to cover. There's more bridges to be crossed. And it is you, the young and fearless at heart, the most diverse and educated generation in our history who the nation is waiting to follow because Selma shows us that America's not the project of any one person.
Because the single most powerful word in our democracy is the word "we." we, the people. We shall overcome. Yes, we can. That word is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone. Oh, what a glorious task we are given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours. Fifty years from bloody Sunday, our march is not yet finished, but
we're getting closer. 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 someone already got us through the first mile, someone got us over that bridge, when it feels the road's too hard, when the torch we are passed feels too heavy, we will remember these early travelers and draw strength from their example and hold firmly to the words of the prophet Isaiah, those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on the wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weir weary. They will walk and not be faint. We honor those who walked so we can run. We must run so our children soar. And we will not go weary for we believe in the power of an awesome God, and we believe in this country's sacred promise.
May he bless worries of justice no longer with us and bless the United States of America. Thank you, everybody.
(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)
WHITFIELD: All right. The power of the word we by the president of the United States there hugging and kissing former president George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush as he waves to this crowd here. It was a booming applause and sound from this audience, hearing this president use that word "we," we the people, we shall overcome and yes we can.
And once again, underscoring this commemoration, it was not one man's struggle, one man's step but it was a collective and it's that message that he says must carry on with the mission and the work still to be done.
Political Commentator van Jones with me now. Athena Jones is also here who have the opportunity to talk to John Lewis before this.
WHITFIELD: And of course, presidential historian Douglas Brinkley is also still with us out of Austin.
This president really did covered the map, didn't he?
JONES: It was extraordinary.
WHITFIELD: It was everything from the sacrifice, paying homage to the past and still living, the civil rights foot soldiers, John Lewis, and reminding John Lewis that he is his hero. He's one of his biggest heroes.
JONES: That's the way he started. And this speech, I think, was extraordinary. It was a speech rooted in a deep patriotism. This was really a love letter to the next generation who may not understand what a broad, broad achievement it is for a country to have these many kinds of people. It's a miracle every day to live in a country where you have -- literally every human ever born, every class, every faith, every sexuality, every color, every kind of person lives in one country and we are all Americans. And so, the president did a beautiful job of retelling America's story, including the pain but he didn't let the pain have the last word.
WHITFIELD: It wasn't the deterrent. It was a motivator, in fact.
JONES: It was a motivator. An so, I think for these young generation that may feel frustrated at times, post-Ferguson et cetera, yes, you acknowledge the pain but you don't let the pain have the last word. That the pain can get you to a better place.
And so, I thought he did a remarkable job. He pushed against a cheap patriotism that will put Americans one against the other and he embraced a deep patriotism that embraced every single kind of American. I thought it was an extraordinary speech.
WHITFIELD: Douglas Brinkley, presidential historian with us. We heard the president talked about everything from the sacrifice that has been paid by these foot soldiers, making tribute to John Lewis. He ticked off the measures of progress and really challenged any doubters that if you think change has not come. And we're seeing the president now who is actually -- who has stepped right off that stage and moved his way right into the audience there and he is getting a chance and the people who have come out are getting a chance to get real face time with him. You've seen a lot of cameras that have been lifted up. They are shaking hands, lifting their hands overhead just to get a touch of the president and the first lady there.
JONES: It's Beatle-mania over there.
WHITFIELD: It really is. And boy, that just really made their day because people clearly, Douglas Brinkley, you are still with us now, people were riveted from this message. Because this president underscored that if you think for a minute that there has not been any change since the 1960s, he said, ask your elders. Ask your gay friends. And he really ticked it off, you know, by paying homage the firefighters of 911. Jackie Robinson, (INAUDIBLE), he made sure that this was a message of inclusion.
WHITFIELD: Douglas, what's your analysis of what you heard from the president?
BRINKLEY: I think this is Barack Obama's I have a dream speech for the 21st century. It was brilliantly written and he delivered it in a flawless fashion as if he was from the church pulpit. It reminded me a lot of a Whitten Palmer, Carl Sandberg, (INAUDIBLE) there was a poetic integrity to the words in the way that he showed us all of these flashpoints in America's history from, you know, independence (INAUDIBLE), to Selma and beyond.
And as you pointed on name called so many great Americans and their contributions. And it was a speech of true inclusion with wanting to bring in gay Americans that protested and spilled their own blood, wanting to get to Navajo code talkers, the Japanese that had been interned in world war II but yet have transcended that into America. It was just really I think a stunning speech and one that people are
going to find published in textbooks and talked about for a while to come. I don't think it has policy implications. But just as a piece of oratory. It was a finally polished and well-crafted speech for the ages.
WHITFIELD: And it really was both delicate and direct, was it not, involving Ferguson. He said, yes, racial history still casts a shadow and there was a common goal with Ferguson, the protection of the law. That was the parallel that this president made to a rousing applause here.
Again, as we look at live pictures with the president going through the crowd here. Thousands have turned out here at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge before, he and he first family crossed the bridge.
Douglas, your comments on the president saying quote "racial history still cast a shadow."
BRINKLEY: Well, yes. And he had to mention Ferguson, he did. But I didn't think he dwelled on it. I think Vance's analysis before the speech was correct. He was framing this for the children, for his children and for future generations and he wanted to give us all a bit of a history lesson. He could have picked a dozen racially tense flashpoint spots in America today. But he wanted to I think, honor the elders as you put it. And did that in the great way.
The spirit of John Lewis was here. And the very fact that Lewis had to give -- to have your hero speak before you is very strange and the president seem to wanted to up his game because of it and to deliver all of these words with John Lewis and others from the 1965 generation that were attendance there.
It was just -- it turned out to be a very beautiful afternoon, not one reminding us of all of our problems of today but reminding us of our ability to transcend those problems and how we have done it time and again in American history.
WHITFIELD: And he did. However, he did send a direct message, did he not, to the younger generation. He said, wait a minute, if you want change, number one, you also have to change your attitude. And, number two, you have to vote. People did not sacrifice their lives. Blood did not poor on the Edmund Pettus Bridge for you to take advantage of or take for granted the right to vote.
BRINKLEY: It was, in the end, a voting rights address. And you are absolutely correct. He was in Selma and that is what Selma was about. And he really doting a new generation. Don't take that for granted. I was thought it was a little edgy and interesting when he talked about how many other democracies around the world do better in registering people to vote than we do in the United States and in that way he felt we have a long way to come.
But you know, so in that way it's a voting rights address that he gave and I think it will be interpreted as that. WHITFIELD: The president right now and the first lady still making
their way through the crowd here. They are not just shaking hands here. They are also talking to people. I see them stopping and I see a young man holding up his little guy. And just reading the lips of Michelle Obama say, how are you? And that little boy is now talking to her and she's engaging in a beautiful conversation with him. He'll never forget that.
And you know, to see the mix of generations here, Douglas, because we've talked to so many people who were eight, they were 10, 11, 12 when they walked the Edmund Pettus Bridge. They were following these foot soldiers. All they knew was that maybe this would be the gateway towards freedom. They wouldn't have to worry about drinking from separate water fountains anymore. They wouldn't have substandard access to movies in the theaters, is what many of them told me. But they found themselves to be part of history, Douglas. And so many of those people are now in their 50s and 60s and they are talking about how important it is for them to have brought their children and grandchildren to this moment. It is historical in so many ways. It spans many generations, doesn't it?
BRINKLEY: The president used this as a teachable moment. You know, With Selma has been talked about because of the movie a lot. And it is generated, of course, the anniversary a lot of talk. But if you went back, say, even ten years ago when ask a 16-year-old on America, what was Selma, you give a lot of drags (ph). I don't think that could said anyone now.
What Selma stands for is now been injected fully into our contemporary events. And I thought that the president was careful not to make this about how our problems of the moment per se.
WHITFIELD: All right. Douglas Brinkley, presidential historian. Thank you so much for being with me here this afternoon.