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SELMA, Ala. -- President Obama commemorated the 50th anniversary of the bloody march from Selma, Ala., to the state capital of Montgomery on Saturday by saying that the march reflected a broader quest to remake America that carries through to today.
"We just need to open our eyes, and ears, and our hearts, to know that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us," Obama said while standing in front of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where 600 marchers clashed with state troopers in 1965 in an incident that helped spur the Voting Rights Act.
"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," Obama said.
Still, Obama maintained that America has made progress in terms of race.
"If you think nothing’s changed in the past 50 years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or Los Angeles of the 1950s," Obama said.
Throughout his more-than-30-minute speech, Obama emphasized that the Selma march was not limited in time and involved more than just a fight for voting rights, suggesting it spanned to present day and beyond to illustrate the push for gay rights, guaranteed education and improved economic opportunities for poorer Americans.
"The march on Selma was part of a broader campaign that spanned generations, the leaders that day part of a long line of heroes," Obama said.
In one of the speech's most energetic moments, Obama called on the dozens of members of Congress in attendance to return to Washington and rally support among their colleagues to "restore" the Voting Rights Act this year.
"It is important for all of us to know that the story of Selma is the story of America," said Rep. Terri SewellTerri SewellA guide to the committees: House CBC to Trump: Keep Richard Cordray, ensure the protection of American consumers WHIP LIST: More than 60 Dems boycotting Trump's inauguration MORE (D-Ala.), the first black woman elected to Congress from the state.
"Selma is now. Every generation faces its own social and political struggles," Sewell said. "There is unfinished business of the voting rights movement."
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who was injured in the march in 1965, reflected on being able to introduce a black president, saying he would not have been able to consider the idea when standing on the same bridge half a century ago.
"On that day, 600 people marched into history," Lewis said.
"It was not a clash of armies, but a clash of wills. A contest to determine the true meaning of America," Obama said of the day.
"They marched as Americans who had endured hundreds of years of brutal violence," he added later.
Obama reflected on America's dynamism, saying, "it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals."
Obama suggested that the doors of social change and opportunity flung open for Americans of different races, genders and sexual orientations, as well as for the disabled.
"Their endeavors gave the entire South the chance to rise again, not by reasserting the past, but by transcending the past," Obama said.
"The single most powerful word in our democracy is 'we.' We the people, we shall overcome. Yes we can – that word is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone," Obama said, harkening back to his 2008 presidential slogan.
In one tense moment, a group of young protesters attempted to disrupt the speech, beating drums and chanting, "We want change." The protest drew howls from the Obama faithful watching nearby. A dozen Alabama state troopers moved in, and a woman in the crowd shouted, "Here comes your change." Obama never stopped speaking.
"Alabama is a different state than it was in 1965, and so is our nation," Alabama Gov. Robert J. Bentley (R) said in remarks before Obama spoke, suggesting the state and nation had come a long way.
"We need more men and women who are not afraid to stand up and work for what they believe in," Bentley said.
There were light-hearted moments in the day, too.
Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), in the middle of an interview with The Hill, was interrupted by Clarence Jones, a lawyer who served as a speechwriter, political advisor and close friend to Martin Luther King, Jr.
Jones said he'd promised his wife that if he met Castro, he'd give him a kiss for her. Which he then did in the middle of the street, to the delight of dozens of snapping cameras.
Obama used his speech to underscore Selma's 50th anniversary as a time to reflect on history.
"We respect the past but we don't pine for the past. We don't fear the future. We grab for it," Obama said.
"If Selma taught us anything, it's that our work is never done," Obama said.
"Our country will never, ever be the same because of what happened on this bridge," Lewis said. "We're black, we're white, we are Hispanic, Asian-American, Native American. But we're one people."