“What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?” -President Barack Obama, Selma, March 7, 2015
President Barack Obama made these poignant remarks standing at the edge of Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge 50 years after “Bloody Sunday,” the day average but committed citizens took a stand and demanded equality, fairness, and the vote. “The Americans who crossed this bridge, they were not physically imposing,” he said. “But they gave courage to millions. They held no elected office. But they led a nation.”
They led with courage.
They led with fearlessness.
And they believed that they had the power to make more perfect a clearly imperfect union.
America will always be a work in progress. There will always be work to do. Last week’s US Justice Department’s (DOJ) report on Ferguson, Missouri’s criminal justice policies and procedures is just one such example. The DOJ’s report accuses Ferguson officials of using the city’s police and court system to generate revenue by disproportionately targeting, fining, or arresting the city’s Black population. Judge Ronald Brockmeyer was named specifically in the report as making up new fees and retaliating against defendants who challenged him. He resigned early this week.
Yesterday Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary Russell announced the assignment of Judge Roy Richter to handle Ferguson’s Municipal Court cases, and authorized him to “implement needed reforms to court policies and procedures…to ensure that the rights of defendants are respected.” Chief Justice Russell also announced in the same press release that the “Court also is examining reforms that are needed on a statewide basis.”
While systemic reforms are now being led by the Courts, there is still work that the average citizen can do in order to ensure continued reformation. And that work begins with voting. Take, for example, the way the Ferguson Municipal Court judge accused of much of the malfeasance was appointed to his position. According to the New York Times, Judge Brockmeyer was recommended by the Ferguson city manager, and his appointment was approved by the city council in 2003. The city manager was hired by the city council. And the city council was elected by the citizens who voted.
Which takes us back to Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge 50 years ago. A group of reformers fighting for the right to vote are attacked and beaten by those who should have been there to protect and serve. The reformers didn’t just protest. They sacrificed with their bodies. The right to vote secured with torn flesh and broken bones. “What’s our excuse today for not voting?” President Obama asked. “How do we so casually discard the right for which so many fought? How do we fully give away our power, our voice…”
In America’s ongoing saga for equality the people of Ferguson must remember the power they have as voters. And instead of just seeing the commemoration on the 50th anniversary of the march across the bridge as a day of celebration and remembrance, they become inspired to take back their power and their voices by exercising the right to vote. That would truly be honoring the legacy of the Selma marchers.