Obama Returns To Selma For 50th Anniversary Of Historic March The president will speak in Selma, Ala., on Saturday, a half-century after civil rights marchers were beaten and tear-gassed by state troopers.

Obama Returns To Selma For 50th Anniversary Of Historic March

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The president and first family will help mark the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Ala., this weekend. It was there in 1965, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, that state troopers violently attacked a peaceful civil rights march. President Obama will speak there tomorrow, putting a spotlight on the issue of race relations in the U.S., something he hasn't often done in his presidency. NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: This is Obama's first trip to Selma since taking office, but it's not his first big public moment there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

GONYEA: In March of 2007, on another anniversary weekend in Selma, he was a newly declared candidate for president. The crowd included some of those who had been there back in 1965.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: We're in the presence today of giants, whose shoulders we stand on.

GONYEA: Less than two years later, Obama would again stand on those shoulders of his civil rights heroes as he took the oath as the nation's first African-American president. But once in office, race was not a frontline issue for the new president. If it came up, it was usually related to news events. Just months into Obama's first term, African-American scholar and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested in his own home after forgetting his keys one night and forcing the door open. At a news conference, the president was asked about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CONFERENCE)

OBAMA: I don't know - not having been there and not seeing all the facts - what role race played in that, but I think it's fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry - number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly.

GONYEA: That off-the-cuff reaction triggered its own controversy. It was an early lesson in how difficult the topic is, even for a still very popular African-American president. In his second term, the president seems less reluctant to highlight race and to discuss his own experience as a black man in America. Still, a lot of has been prompted by events, including the deaths of several African-American men at the hands of police. This is from last November.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

OBAMA: The fact is in too many parts of this country, a deep distrust exists between law enforcement and communities of color. Some of this is the result of the legacy of racial discrimination in this country. And this is tragic because nobody needs good policing more than poor communities with higher crime rates.

GONYEA: The president has been proactive with the My Brother's Keeper initiative announced a year ago aimed at finding ways to build support for boys and young men of color. April Ryan is the author of the book "The Presidency In Black And White" about her time as an African-American journalist covering three presidents. She sees a change in Obama.

APRIL RYAN: First-term President Barack Obama - he was a president who happened to be black. Second-term Barack Obama - he is the president who definitely is indeed black.

GONYEA: Ryan spoke at an event hosted by Politico.

RYAN: First term, he had to navigate the water successfully to avoid the topic so he could get a second term.

GONYEA: And there's already discussion of what Obama's post-presidency may be like and whether he'll make race in America a dominant theme, as many civil rights activists hope. Andra Gillespie teaches at Emory University.

ANDRA GILLESPIE: He's never going to escape the fact that he was the first black president of the United States. So in that respect, race is likely going to be a part of that overall initiative and agenda. But he could have very different plans than the ones that liberal activists and scholars of African-American politics would want him to have.

GONYEA: In the meantime, it's back to Selma this weekend for the president and another moment to ask Americans to look back at a difficult past and to think about the future. Don Gonyea, NPR News.

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