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Fifty years later, we must rededicate ourselves to the Selma-to-Montgomery marchers' cause

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the conclusion of the Selma-to-Montgomery March, we should rededicate ourselves to the cause with a renewed sense of urgency and the determination of those who marched the 54 miles to the Alabama Capitol.

Fifty years ago today, I was standing near the steps of the Alabama Capitol when Dr. King spoke at the end of the Selma-to-Montgomery March.

It was a triumphant moment.

The courage of those on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday had awakened the conscience of the nation and inspired people of good will from around the country to join in a great cause.

Their courage had also moved President Johnson to introduce the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and to promise the country that we shall overcome. 

Dr. King answered a question that day that was on everyone’s mind: How long would it take to throw off the yoke of segregation and build a just society? 

Not long, he said, because no lie can live forever.

Today, 50 years later, as I prepare to speak to the thousands who are commemorating the march, I’m still convinced that the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice.

But I ask: How much longer will it take?

For too long, our country has failed to live up to the true meaning of its creed.

For too long, our country has allowed the crippling legacy of Jim Crow to linger.

For too long, our country has built prisons rather than schools.

For too long, our country has punished the poor rather than provide equal opportunity.

In his speech 50 years ago, Dr. King traced the origins of Jim Crow not to racial hatred but to the strategy of the moneyed interests of the day to pit white against black.

Those interests are at work today, it’s plain to see. 

Still trying to divide us. Still fanning the flames of racial resentment. Still pitting white against black – and now Latino.

We need to protect voting rights in our country.

We need to extend equal opportunity to all.

But if we are to do these things, we must embrace our democratic values and resist the voices that would divide us. 

Today we’re celebrating a triumphant moment. But celebrations are not enough.

To honor the courage of those on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday … to be true to the spirit of those who marched from Selma to Montgomery … to honor the sacrifices of Jimmie Lee Jackson, Rev. James Reeb, Viola Liuzzo and all the others who died so that we could live in freedom … we must rededicate ourselves to their cause with a renewed sense of urgency and with the determination of those who marched the 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery.

Should we fail to do so – should we not capitalize on this triumphant moment – we will find ourselves here, year after year, asking the same question: How much longer?