Every once in a while, a historic event occurs that eloquently meets the needs of a contemporary national trial. Just such an occasion occurred last weekend with the 50th anniversary of the bloody civil rights march across theEdmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.

It came on the heels of the awaited Justice Department report on the racial turmoil in Ferguson, Mo., which was sparked by the killing of a young black man by a police officer and prolonged by a grand jury's decision not to prosecute him.


The leader of the commemorative march in Selma, Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, was present at the original march, and was severely beaten on that day. On Saturday he joined the first black president of the United States in a huge commemorative march over the same bridge.

Barack Obama met the challenge with a stirring speech that, while paying tribute to the Selma marchers of half a century ago, insisted that the nation's journey to racial justice was far from completed.

What happened in Ferguson, he said, "may not be unique, but it's no longer endemic. It's no longer sanctioned by law or by custom, and before the civil rights movement, it most certainly was."

But it was also wrong, he said, "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 the Ferguson report to know that's not true. We just need to open our eyes, and our ears and our hearts to know that this nation's racial history still casts its long shadow upon us."

Thus did this black president, often criticized for not sufficiently stepping up to the issue of race, note the imperative of further remedial work. Obama himself sidestepped taking sides on the disposition of the Ferguson case. Instead, he encouraged Americans to keep talking about combatting racial injustice but also to engage more in the political process itself.

Citing the Supreme Court ruling rolling back old provisions of the Voting Rights Act governing compliance requirements on certain Southern states, he called on the hundred or so members of Congress at the Selma commemoration to restore them. "If we want to honor this day," he said, "let that hundred go back to Washington and gather four hundred more, and together pledge to make it their mission to restore that law this year."

While he was at it, the president chided Americans generally about their lower voter turnout rates, asking: "What's our excuse today for not voting? How do we so casually discard the right for which so many fought?"

It was a nonpartisan appeal for what was distinctly a nonpartisan celebration of how far America has come from that day 50 years ago in race relations and opportunities, yet with a reminder of the distance yet to go.

Marching along the front line across the bridge with Barack and Michelle Obama, John Lewis and other civil rights leaders were former President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura. In Obama's speech, he took note that both Bush and President Ronald Reagan, Republicans, had signed renewals of the Voting Rights Act in their Oval Office tenures.

The president's exhortation to all members of Congress regardless of party to assert their political power is one they could well take to heart now, in this period of continuing malfunction and disputation on Capitol Hill. The change of party control dictated by last November's midterm election was marked by promises of the incoming Republican majority to start getting work done again. Instead, the rigid partisanship and bitterness continues.

Only days after the uplifting Selma commemoration, it was back in the headlines with 47 Senate Republicans free-lancing in American foreign policy, sending a letter to the leader of Iran urging him to reject the Obama administration's negotiations on a deal on development of nuclear power. So much for the warm, temporary glow of togetherness that radiated from Selma.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.