And with effort, we can protect the foundation stone of our democracy for which so many marched across this bridge – and that is the right to vote. Right now, in 2015, fifty years after Selma, there are laws across this country designed to make it harder for people to vote. As we speak, more of such laws are being proposed. Meanwhile, the Voting Rights Act, the culmination of so much blood and sweat and tears, the product of so much sacrifice in the face of wanton violence, stands weakened, its future subject to partisan rancor.
How can that be? The Voting Rights Act was one of the crowning achievements of our democracy, the result of Republican and Democratic effort. President Reagan signed its renewal when he was in office. President Bush signed its renewal when he was in office. One hundred Members of Congress have come here today to honor people who were willing to die for the right it protects. If we want to honor this day, let these hundred go back to Washington, and gather four hundred more, and together, pledge to make it their mission to restore the law this year.
Of course, our democracy is not the task of Congress alone, or the courts alone, or the President alone. If every new voter suppression law was struck down today, we’d still have one of the lowest voting rates among free peoples. Fifty years ago, registering to vote here in Selma and much of the South meant guessing the number of jellybeans in a jar or bubbles on a bar of soap. It meant risking your dignity, and sometimes, your life. What is 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?
Fellow marchers, so much has changed in fifty years. We’ve endured war, and fashioned peace. We’ve seen technological wonders that touch every aspect of our lives, and take for granted convenience our parents might scarcely imagine. 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 loved 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.
The president gave a remarkable and far-reaching speech. Make no mistake about it. President Obama was calling out both the Republican attempts at the state level to suppress the vote, and the congressional Republican foot-dragging on the Voting Rights Act.
Voting rights isn’t a Democratic or Republican issue. All Americans should be standing together to demand that voter suppression tactics must stop. It was a disgrace when the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, and it is even more shameful that Republicans in Congress have not restored the law.
The Voting Rights Act does have bipartisan support in Congress. The question is, are Republican leaders in Congress brave enough to allow a vote on restoring the law? President Obama delivered a stirring speech. Today is more than a day to mark the history and courage of fifty years ago. It is also a day to demand a rare bit of courage from Congress. It is time for Congress to do the right thing and restore the Voting Rights Act.