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On Saturday, March 7, 2015, President Obama mesmerized the nation when he spoke at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first American Civil Rights March from Selma to Montgomery. Our amazing President not only gave honor to all who planned and participated in that historic moment, characterizing it as “where this nation’s destiny has been decided,” but used his speech to remind us of our country’s core values including the current struggle for gay rights.

The President celebrated the courageous civil rights activists who half-a-century ago faced state troopers who attacked them - unarmed marchers - with billy clubs and tear gas. He also urged passage of the current Voting Rights Act, which is now before Congress, after the Supreme Court, in 2013, weakened the original 1965 Act.

“We gather here to celebrate them,” Obama said. “We gather here to honor the courage of ordinary Americans willing to endure billy clubs and the chastening rod; tear gas and the trampling hoof; men and women who despite the gush of blood and splintered bone would stay true to their North Star and keep marching towards justice.”

Continuing, Obama said, “America cannot examine this moment in isolation,” and the march helped advance civil rights victories for other
people, including gay Americans.

“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. “Ask the female CEO who once might have been assigned to the secretarial pool if nothing’s changed. Ask your gay friend if it’s easier to be out and proud in America now than it was thirty years ago. To deny this progress, this hard-won progress — our progress — would be to rob us of our own agency, our own capacity, our responsibility to do what we can to make America better.”

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The President made a direct comparison of Selma to demonstrations of gay Americans during the last almost 50 years, recalling the Stonewall riots of 1969 and demonstrations in San Francisco upon the assassination of gay supervisor Harvey Milk. “We’re the gay Americans whose blood ran in the streets of San Francisco and New York, just as blood ran down this bridge,” Obama said.

It was President Obama’s firm support that helped propel gay rights to the stage-center as LBJ, using the assassination of JFK and his Southern heritage, brought the passage of the Civil Rights Act to the national center stage.[/pullquote]

The President also addressed - obliquely - the odious right-wing claim that he doesn’t love America by making the case that “what it means to love America” is to invoke the spirit of change. He then again mentioned gay Americans who “came through those doors” opened by civil rights activists a half-century ago. Of course, in the right-wing universe, that type of statement would only be seen as him brazenly bolstering his hate and degrading attitude towards America and “real Americans.”

I remember Lyndon Johnson’s presidency and his amazing strong arming of the Civil Rights Act through Congress. It was President Obama’s firm support that helped propel gay rights to the stage-center as LBJ, using the assassination of JFK and his Southern heritage, brought the passage of the Civil Rights Act to the national center stage. His intimate knowledge of the workings of the Senate and the House allowed him to triumph with the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

Concluding his speech, Obama said the efforts of activists is still ongoing and an integral part of the nation’s history. “Fifty years from Bloody Sunday, our march is not yet finished, but we’re getting closer,” Obama said. “Two hundred and thirty-nine years after this nation’s founding our union is not yet perfect, but we are getting closer. Our job’s easier because somebody already got us through that first mile. Somebody already got us over that bridge.”

I salute our President for his inclusion of the LGBT community in his Civil Rights speech. As our country continues to evolve, recognizing that the Constitution embraces everyone, we must renew our efforts at equality under the law for women. And for that effort, I believe it will take a woman president to know, intimately, how to start removing that entrenched social, legal and religious prejudice.

It won’t be easy. However, just the symbolism alone of a woman being president will carry immense power.

It’s hard to believe that with the passage of hundreds of years and a Civil War, we still see a deadly level of racial discrimination in our country and a Supreme Court that does not support sufficient remedies. The time has come to remove the roadblocks and laws while changing the traditions that restrain, stop and penalize Americans because they are women. To start the ball rolling, let’s work to put a woman in the White House in 2016.

Carl Matthes

carl matthes