President Barack Obama marked the 50th anniversary of Selma by celebrating the ordinary heroes who sacrificed so much to make America better. Noting that nearly 100 members of Congress were in the audience, he urged them to return to Washington to strengthen the Voting Rights Act, weakened by the ill-considered decision of five conservative Supreme Court Justices in Shelby County v. Holder. Today, 50 years after Selma, states are moving once more to make voting harder rather than easier.
Reviving the Voting Rights Act is essential, but it is not sufficient. The marchers in Selma were marching not just for the right to vote, but also for jobs and justice. And today, Selma itself reveals how far we have to go.
Much attention was rightly paid to the 103-year-old Amelia Boynton Robinson. In 1965, she was a leader in planning the Selma demonstrations, and her home was the site for Dr. Martin Luther King and legislators to gather as they wrote the first draft of the Voting Rights Act. This weekend, 50 years later, she joined President Obama on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, sitting tall in her wheelchair.
Yet, her home — which ought to be a national memorial — now sits boarded up, joining other vacant and foreclosed homes in her neighborhood.
Selma is now 80 percent black. Dallas County, where it sits, suffers the highest unemployment in the state at 10.2 percent. The official figure doesn’t count the many who have simply given up trying to find a job. Downtown Selma has as many boarded-up stores as operating ones.
USA Today quoted David Garrow, the author of “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference,” who warned against “reducing history to a photo op.” The focus, he argued, “should be on investment and economic development in places like Selma. The focus should be on what we can do for Selma, not what Selma can do for us.” And of course, it is not just Selma. African-American unemployment remains at more than twice the level of white unemployment. Only 60 percent of all African-American men have a job of any kind, with only one in five African-Americans 16-19 employed. We lock up more people — mostly people of color — than any other nation in the world. The Justice Department’s investigation of Ferguson, Missouri showed a destructive racial bias still stains our criminal justice system. Our schools in poor communities — ghettos, barrios and rural areas — still suffer a savage inequality in resources and capacity.
Yes, great progress has been made, and it is important to recognize and remember the courage and costs of those who sacrificed to make America better.
But the commemoration must be a call to action. We should be protesting in Selma, not celebrating. The Civil Rights struggle was in some respect a movement that had three parts. The first was ending legal segregation. The second was guaranteeing the right to vote. The third, the one Dr. King knew would be the most difficult, was to guarantee economic justice, equal opportunity and a fair start for all. As Selma shows today, and as the Fergusons across the country demonstrate, that part has yet to be achieved.
President Obama was right. It’s great to see 100 legislators at the demonstration, but we need them to legislate, not demonstrate. We need them to return to Washington and raise the minimum wage. We need a jobs program for young people in urban America. We need to fulfill the easy rhetoric about education as an answer, by investing the most in those who need it the most — the sons and daughters of the poor and low-wage families.
President Obama called out to the young to lead once more: “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.” We’ve seen the stirrings in the Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the country. What Selma reminds us is that to make America better will take much more action to demand what could be, and much less acceptance of what is.