TIME Congress

How a Human Trafficking Bill Became a Debate About Abortion

Sen. John Cornyn
Bill Clark—CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, on Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2015.

Language to block funding for abortions has Democrats ready to filibuster

In February, the leading anti-trafficking organization Polaris praised the Senate for taking up their cause. On Wednesday, the group’s tone had changed dramatically, as it was now urging that same group of lawmakers to pass the same bill.

What happened? Two words: Abortion politics.

Until Tuesday, the bill was set to easily pass the Senate with bipartisan support. Now, it’s in jeopardy due to the inclusion of language that would limit women’s access to abortions.

“The bipartisan support to address modern slavery should not be held up by a separate debate on partisan issues,” said Brandon Bouchard, a spokesperson for Polaris.

The Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking, another anti-trafficking advocacy group, expressed similar sentiment: “We urge all members of the Senate to turn away from this divisive debate and find a bipartisan approach to this new initiative to protect and serve the needs of survivors,” it said in a statement.

Introduced by Sen. John Cornyn of Texas in January, the Justice for Victims in Trafficking Act would establish a fund for victims using fines collected for trafficking crimes. Democrats and Republicans supported the bill, which passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee with ease in late February. And on Monday, Senators seemed excited to move forward on the legislation.

That changed Tuesday, when Democrats cried foul over language in the bill they say was slipped in under the radar that would restrict the use of any funds collected from the trafficking punishment for abortions. Democrats say the abortion restrictions were not included in a list of changes to the bill that was circulated when it was introduced. Because of that, Democrats said they were unaware of any such provision when they decided to support it. Plus, they say adding it to this legislation goes too far.

Cornyn, however, says that doesn’t make sense. “I don’t believe for a minute they would have missed a reference in this legislation to a restriction on spending on funding taxpayer-provided abortions,” he said in an impassioned floor speech on Tuesday. “There are no shrinking violets in the United States Senate.”

Cornyn also said when he offered Democrats the option of offering an amendment they rejected it. “When we offered them an opportunity to offer an amendment to change that, they said: ‘No, we don’t want an amendment. We don’t want to change it by a vote of the Senate. We just want to block the bill,’” Cornyn said Wednesday. “And that’s what, unless something changes between now and the time we vote on cloture on the bill, is going to happen. Because they don’t want to amend the bill.”

But Democrats gave Republicans two options on Wednesday: remove the language or risk having the bill blocked.

“This bill has been hijacked by an issue completely unrelated to human trafficking,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said in a floor speech on Wednesday. “I would suggest to the Majority, take it out.”

The whole ordeal is endemic of the partisan gridlock plaguing Washington, with both sides reluctant to cede any ground even though both agree on the fundamentals. Stuck in the middle of it all: the victims of trafficking and the organizations that were hoping greater protections and resources were on the horizon.

With reporting by Alex Rogers

 

TIME White House

Loretta Lynch’s Long Wait May Soon Be Over

President Barack Obama listens at right as US Attorney Loretta Lynch speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington on Nov. 8, 2014.
Carolyn Kaster—AP President Barack Obama listens at right as US Attorney Loretta Lynch speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington on Nov. 8, 2014.

Her nomination process has been one of the longest in recent history

The long-stalled confirmation of Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch will soon be over. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that the Senate will hold a vote on whether to confirm Lynch next week, ending the over 100-day delay.

In February, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the Brooklyn prosecutor’s nomination in a 12-8 vote. Three Republicans—Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jeff Flake of Arizona—joined all of the committee’s Democrats in supporting her then.

The vote came nearly a month after Lynch’s generally seamless confirmation hearing, which was peppered with questions about President Obama’s immigration executive action. And though Senators found little fault with her overall qualifications, her refusal to denounce the order that would allow millions of undocumented immigrants to stay in the country temporarily without risk of deportation gave many Republican Senators pause.

Democrats and some Republicans, however, have argued that the role of Attorney General is too important to get caught up in the brouhaha over immigration. “We hope we won’t see a replay on Loretta Lynch because [Republicans] care about repealing the president on immigration,” Sen. Chuck Schumer said Tuesday.

“No one has objected to anything about Loretta Lynch, her character, her history, what she’s done as U.S. Attorney,” he added.

President Obama nominated Lynch to replace retiring Attorney General Eric Holder over 121 days ago. If confirmed, she would become the first African-American woman to hold the position in our nation’s history, a fact that wasn’t overlooked during the celebration this weekend of the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Ala., where civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton and Director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund Sherrilyn Ifill called for her swift confirmation.

On Sunday at Brown A.M.E. Church, where nonviolent protesters sought refuge after being bludgeoned bloody by Alabama state troopers en route to Montgomery some 50 years ago, Sharpton said racism was partly to blame for the delay on Lynch’s confirmation, which is among the longest in history. “You don’t think we notice that?” he asked the gathered crowd.

Under the Obama administration the office of Attorney General has been the cause of much contention between the Congress and the White House. Republicans have accused Attorney General Holder of politicizing the role of the nation’s top cop. His decisions not to enforce marijuana laws in states where the drug has been legalized and urging states attorneys general not to defend same-sex marriage bans drew the ire of many on the right. Holder is also the only sitting Attorney General to be held in contempt of Congress, a result of the investigation into a gun running scheme by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

“In some ways it’s surprising that Republicans don’t want Holder out sooner,” says Michelle Schwartz of the Alliance for Justice.

Blocking the President’s immigration action, so it seems, is more important. But, Gregory Wawro, a political science professor at Columbia University says the consequences of blocking the first African-American woman to the post of Attorney General could be great. Republicans already have a strained relationship with black voters, having garnered less than 10% of the black vote during the 2012 election. Since that time, the GOP has been working to improve relationships with the community.

“She represents constituencies Republicans have problematic relationships with,” Wawro says. “Republicans have painted themselves into a corner.”

With reporting by Alex Rogers

TIME Silicon Valley

Woman at Center of Silicon Valley Sex Discrimination Trial Takes the Stand

Ellen Pao
Eric Risberg—AP Ellen Pao leaves the Civic Center Courthouse on Feb. 24, 2015, in San Francisco, Calif.

Ellen Pao says she was passed over for senior positions because of her gender

A woman behind a closely watched trial over gender bias at a well-known venture capital firm in Silicon Valley took the stand on Monday to share her side of the story.

Ellen Pao, who will testify again on Tuesday, said Monday that a male colleague at the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins with whom she had an affair became hostile toward her when she broke things off.

Pao is seeking $16 million in damages in her suit and says she was passed over for jobs and retaliated against because of her gender. Kleiner lawyers say the company is simply a meritocracy, and employees are judged purely on the strength of their work.

Previous witnesses have tried to paint Pao as quiet and inarticulate, USA Today reports, but on the stand Monday she came across as calm and a good presenter.

Pao said when she was first offered a job at Kleiner Perkins, one of Silicon Valley’s largest firms, she turned it down because it didn’t meet her qualifications. She was later offered another position, but says she was given the boot from the firm in 2012 after complaining about gender bias.

The suit has highlighted the lack of gender diversity in Silicon Valley, and the “bro-grammer” culture that exists there as a result.

[USA Today]

TIME technology

Wikipedia Sues NSA Over Mass Surveillance Program

The National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters in Fort Meade, Md.
Getty Images The National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters in Fort Meade, Md.

Wikimedia Foundation files suit against the National Security Agency and DoJ

The Wikimedia Foundation, which runs the web-based encyclopedia Wikipedia, has joined forces with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in a legal challenge to a government mass surveillance program it says strains the “backbone of democracy.”

In a lawsuit filed in a Maryland federal court on Tuesday, Wikimedia and eight other organizations accuse the National Security Agency and the Department of Justice of violating the First and Fourth Amendments through a practice known as “upstream surveillance,” which was disclosed in leaks by former NSA agent Edward Snowden.

Through upstream surveillance, the NSA is authorized to collect data on Internet users who communicate with “non U.S. persons” if it any way relates to national security or foreign affairs. Wikimedia says such data might include communications by its staff and users.

“Wikipedia is founded on the freedoms of expression, inquiry, and information. By violating our users’ privacy, the NSA is threatening the intellectual freedom that is central to people’s ability to create and understand knowledge,” Wikimedia Foundation Executive Director Lila Tretikov said in a blog post.

The Supreme Court dismissed a previous challenge to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which permits the NSA to collect data on the web, because the plaintiffs did not have legal standing to bring the case. Wikimedia says it has legal grounds to present the case because a classified NSA presentation included a reference to Wikipedia and used their trademark.

“Because these disclosures revealed that the government specifically targeted Wikipedia and its users, we believe we have more than sufficient evidence to establish standing,” a blog post reads.

Read next: Meet the New Female Artists of Wikipedia

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME food and drink

Burger King Quietly Drops Sugary Soft Drinks From Kids’ Menu

Milk and 100% apple juice now displayed as options for younger patrons

Burger King has joined a growing number of fast-food restaurants trying to reduce the unhealthy options on their menus by removing calorie-laden soft drinks from its kids’ menu.

In a statement to USA Today, the fast-food giant said it removed fountain drinks from kids’ menus without fanfare last month “as a part of our ongoing effort to offer our guests options that match lifestyle needs.” Now, instead of Coca-Cola and Sprite, menus display milk or apple juice as options for young patrons.

The carbonated and sugary drinks are still an option, but they aren’t advertised on the listed menu.

McDonalds and Wendy’s have also recently introduced healthier options, with McDonald’s announcing last week it will no longer serve chicken containing human antibiotics.

Fast-food chains are feeling the pressure from advocacy groups to do their part to help fight childhood obesity. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over a third of American children and adolescents were obese in 2012. The Center for Science in the Public Interest says sugary drinks are a hefty contributor to kids packing on the extra pounds.

[USA Today]

Read next: Girl Scouts Are Opening a Cookie Drive-Thru

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Foreign Policy

White House Places Sanctions on 7 Officials in Venezuela

Nicolas Maduro, Cilia Flores
Fernando Llano—AP Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, center, in Caracas, Venezuela, on Feb. 28, 2015.

President Obama ordered the Treasury Department to freeze assets and property of seven government officials

The White House is further cracking down on Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s administration for its handling of protests last year, issuing sanctions against seven officials over human-rights violations.

The sanctions come via an Executive Order signed by President Obama on Monday that expands on a law passed last year to allow the U.S. to place sanctions on Venezuelan government officials who they accused of violating protesters’ rights during months of unrest over the nation’s economy and crime. The White House stresses that the new sanctions are not meant to target the Latin American country’s government or people, but target specific individuals from entering the U.S. and freeze any of their property or financial interests here.

The move comes as the U.S. works to improve relations across Latin America, including Cuba. But Maduro has taken an anti-American line since succeeding late President Hugo Chávez in 2013. “It is unfortunate that during a time when we have opened up engagement with every nation in the Americas, Venezuela has opted to go in the opposite direction,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

Under the order, those who have committed “actions that prohibit, limit, or penalize the exercise of freedom of expression or peaceful assembly” and public officials it deems corrupt could be subject to sanctions. The order further targets those who have cracked down on citizens, often through violence and arbitrary detention, who have been involved in countrywide protests that sprung up in February 2014.

During the protests, which raged from February through May, at least 43 people were killed and thousands were arrested. Global anticorruption coalition Transparency International says Venezuela has consistently had one of the “highest levels of perceived corruption in the world.” Earnest also called for the release of all political prisoners in Venezuela.

The seven officials specifically identified for sanctions are:

  • Antonio José Benavides Torres, a commander in Venezuela’s Bolivarian National Armed Forces and former leader of the Bolivarian National Guard, which the White House says has “engaged in significant acts of violence or conduct that constitutes a serious abuse or violation of human rights”
  • Gustavo Enrique González López, the director general of Venezuela’s Bolivarian National Intelligence Service, which the U.S. says has “committed hundreds of forced entries and extrajudicial detentions in Venezuela” and spied on opposition leaders
  • Justo José Noguera Pietri, the former general commander of Venezuela’s Bolivarian National Guard
  • Katherine Nayarith Haringhton Padron, a national-level prosecutor
  • Manuel Eduardo Pérez Urdaneta, the director of Venezuela’s Bolivarian National Police
  • Manuel Gregorio Bernal Martínez, a former director general of Venezuela’s Bolivarian National Intelligence Service
  • Miguel Alcides Vivas Landino, the inspector general of Venezuela’s Bolivarian National Armed Forces

Senior Administration officials said Monday they don’t yet know how the sanctions will impact the individuals, but the point of the sanctions is to “shine a light on the abuse of human rights or public corruption” of government officials. They’re hoping the sanctions will send a signal to Venezuelan officials as the country prepares to host a national election later this year.

“We hope to shine a light on practice, not just the individual property that may be in the U.S.,” an official said Monday.

For his part, Maduro has also issued sanctions against the U.S. — calling for a reduced presence of U.S. officials in the country, accusing the U.S. government of attempting a coup, requiring visitors to obtain visas before entering the country and barring former President George W. Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney. He also called the original law that authorized the sanctions “stupid.”

TIME White House

Transcript: Read Full Text of President Barack Obama’s Speech in Selma

The President spoke on Saturday on the 50th anniversary of 'Bloody Sunday'

President Obama spoke before thousands on Saturday during a commemorative ceremony for the 50th anniversary of the events of “Bloody Sunday” when over 600 non-violent protesters were attacked by Alabama state troopers as they attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights.

Here is the full text of Saturday’s speech, as prepared for delivery.

It is a rare honor in this life to follow one of your heroes. And John Lewis is one of my heroes.

Now, I have to imagine that when a younger John Lewis woke up that morning fifty years ago and made his way to Brown Chapel, heroics were not on his mind. A day like this was not on his mind. Young folks with bedrolls and backpacks were milling about. Veterans of the movement trained newcomers in the tactics of non-violence; the right way to protect yourself when attacked. A doctor described what tear gas does to the body, while marchers scribbled down instructions for contacting their loved ones. The air was thick with doubt, anticipation, and fear. They comforted themselves with the final verse of the final hymn they sung:

No matter what may be the test, God will take care of you;

Lean, weary one, upon His breast, God will take care of you.

Then, his knapsack stocked with an apple, a toothbrush, a book on government – all you need for a night behind bars – John Lewis led them out of the church on a mission to change America.

President Bush and Mrs. Bush, Governor Bentley, Members of Congress, Mayor Evans, Reverend Strong, friends and fellow Americans:

There are places, and moments in America where this nation’s destiny has been decided. Many are sites of war – Concord and Lexington, Appomattox and Gettysburg. Others are sites that symbolize the daring of America’s character – Independence Hall and Seneca Falls, Kitty Hawk and Cape Canaveral.

Selma is such a place.

In one afternoon fifty years ago, so much of our turbulent history – the stain of slavery and anguish of civil war; the yoke of segregation and tyranny of Jim Crow; the death of four little girls in Birmingham, and the dream of a Baptist preacher – met on this bridge.

It was not a clash of armies, but a clash of wills; a contest to determine the meaning of America.

And because of men and women like John Lewis, Joseph Lowery, Hosea Williams, Amelia Boynton, Diane Nash, Ralph Abernathy, C.T. Vivian, Andrew Young, Fred Shuttlesworth, Dr. King, and so many more, the idea of a just America, a fair America, an inclusive America, a generous America – that idea ultimately triumphed.

As is true across the landscape of American history, we cannot examine this moment in isolation. The march on Selma was part of a broader campaign that spanned generations; the leaders that day part of a long line of heroes.

We gather here to celebrate them. 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 toward justice.

They did as Scripture instructed: “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.” And in the days to come, they went back again and again. When the trumpet call sounded for more to join, the people came – black and white, young and old, Christian and Jew, waving the American flag and singing the same anthems full of faith and hope. A white newsman, Bill Plante, who covered the marches then and who is with us here today, quipped that the growing number of white people lowered the quality of the singing. To those who marched, though, those old gospel songs must have never sounded so sweet.

In time, their chorus would reach President Johnson. And he would send them protection, echoing their call for the nation and the world to hear:

“We shall overcome.”

What enormous faith these men and women had. Faith in God – but also faith in America.

The Americans who crossed this bridge were not physically imposing. But they gave courage to millions. They held no elected office. But they led a nation. They marched as Americans who had endured hundreds of years of brutal violence, and countless daily indignities – but they didn’t seek special treatment, just the equal treatment promised to them almost a century before.

What they did here will reverberate through the ages. Not because the change they won was preordained; not because their victory was complete; but because they proved that nonviolent change is possible; that love and hope can conquer hate.

As we commemorate their achievement, we are well-served to remember that at the time of the marches, many in power condemned rather than praised them. Back then, they were called Communists, half-breeds, outside agitators, sexual and moral degenerates, and worse – everything but the name their parents gave them. Their faith was questioned. Their lives were threatened. Their patriotism was challenged.

And yet, what could be more American than what happened in this place?

What could more profoundly vindicate the idea of America than plain and humble people – the unsung, the downtrodden, the dreamers not of high station, not born to wealth or privilege, not of one religious tradition but many – coming together to shape their country’s course?

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 yet 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?

That’s why Selma is not some outlier in the American experience. That’s why it’s not a museum or static monument to behold from a distance. It is instead the manifestation of a creed written into our founding documents:

“We the People…in order to form a more perfect union.”

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

These are not just words. They are a living thing, a call to action, a roadmap for citizenship and an insistence in the capacity of free men and women to shape our own destiny. For founders like Franklin and Jefferson, for leaders like Lincoln and FDR, the success of our experiment in self-government rested on engaging all our citizens in this work. That’s what we celebrate here in Selma. That’s what this movement was all about, one leg in our long journey toward freedom.

The American instinct that led these young men and women to pick up the torch and cross this bridge is the same instinct that moved patriots to choose revolution over tyranny. It’s the same instinct that drew immigrants from across oceans and the Rio Grande; the same instinct that led women to reach for the ballot and workers to organize against an unjust status quo; the same instinct that led us to plant a flag at Iwo Jima and on the surface of the Moon.

It’s the idea held by generations of citizens who believed that America is a constant work in progress; who believed that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths. It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what’s right and shake up the status quo.

That’s what makes us unique, and cements our reputation as a beacon of opportunity. Young people behind the Iron Curtain would see Selma and eventually tear down a wall. Young people in Soweto would hear Bobby Kennedy talk about ripples of hope and eventually banish the scourge of apartheid. Young people in Burma went to prison rather than submit to military rule. From the streets of Tunis to the Maidan in Ukraine, this generation of young people can draw strength from this place, where the powerless could change the world’s greatest superpower, and push their leaders to expand the boundaries of freedom.

They saw that idea made real in Selma, Alabama. They saw it made real in America.

Because of campaigns like this, a Voting Rights Act was passed. Political, economic, and social barriers came down, and the change these men and women wrought is visible here today in the presence of African-Americans who run boardrooms, who sit on the bench, who serve in elected office from small towns to big cities; from the Congressional Black Caucus to the Oval Office.

Because of what they did, the doors of opportunity swung open not just for African-Americans, but for every American. Women marched through those doors. Latinos marched through those doors. Asian-Americans, gay Americans, and Americans with disabilities came through those doors. Their endeavors gave the entire South the chance to rise again, not by reasserting the past, but by transcending the past.

What a glorious thing, Dr. King might say.

What a solemn debt we owe.

Which leads us to ask, just how might we repay that debt?

First and foremost, we have to recognize that one day’s commemoration, no matter how special, is not enough. If Selma taught us anything, it’s that our work is never done – the American experiment in self-government gives work and purpose to each generation.

Selma teaches us, too, that action requires that we shed our cynicism. For when it comes to the pursuit of justice, we can afford neither complacency nor despair.

Just this week, I was asked whether I thought the Department of Justice’s Ferguson report shows that, with respect to race, little has changed in this country. I understand the question, for the report’s narrative was woefully familiar. It evoked the kind of abuse and disregard for citizens that spawned the Civil Rights Movement. But I rejected the notion that nothing’s changed. What happened in Ferguson may not be unique, but it’s no longer endemic, or sanctioned by law and custom; and before the Civil Rights Movement, it most surely was.

We do a disservice to the cause of justice by intimating that bias and discrimination are immutable, or that racial division is inherent to America. If you think nothing’s changed in the past fifty years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or L.A. of the Fifties. 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 – our progress – would be to rob us of our own agency; our responsibility to do what we can to make America better.

Of course, a more common mistake is to suggest that racism is banished, that the work that drew men and women to Selma is 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 ears, and hearts, to know that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us. We know the march is not yet over, the race is not yet won, and that reaching that blessed destination where we are judged by the content of our character – requires admitting as much.

“We are capable of bearing a great burden,” James Baldwin wrote, “once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is.”

This is work for all Americans, and not just some. Not just whites. Not just blacks. If we want to honor the courage of those who marched that day, then all of us are called to possess their moral imagination. All of us will need to feel, as they did, the fierce urgency of now. All of us need to recognize, as they did, that change depends on our actions, our attitudes, the things we teach our children. And if we make such effort, no matter how hard it may seem, laws can be passed, and consciences can be stirred, and consensus can be built.

With such effort, we can make sure our criminal justice system serves all and not just some. Together, we can raise the level of mutual trust that policing is built on – the idea that police officers are members of the communities they risk their lives to protect, and citizens in Ferguson and New York and Cleveland just want the same thing young people here marched for – the protection of the law. Together, we can address unfair sentencing, and overcrowded prisons, and the stunted circumstances that rob too many boys of the chance to become men, and rob the nation of too many men who could be good dads, and workers, and neighbors.

With effort, we can roll back poverty and the roadblocks to opportunity. Americans don’t accept a free ride for anyone, nor do we believe in equality of outcomes. But we do expect equal opportunity, and if we really mean it, if we’re willing to sacrifice for it, then we can make sure every child gets an education suitable to this new century, one that expands imaginations and lifts their sights and gives them skills. We can make sure every person willing to work has the dignity of a job, and a fair wage, and a real voice, and sturdier rungs on that ladder into the middle class.

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.

For we were born of change. We broke the old aristocracies, declaring ourselves entitled not by bloodline, but endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights. We secure our rights and responsibilities through a system of self-government, of and by and for the people. That’s why we argue and fight with so much passion and conviction, because we know our efforts matter. We know America is what we make of it.

We are Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea – pioneers who braved the unfamiliar, followed by a stampede of farmers and miners, entrepreneurs and hucksters. That’s our spirit.

We are Sojourner Truth and Fannie Lou Hamer, women who could do as much as any man and then some; and we’re Susan B. Anthony, who shook the system until the law reflected that truth. That’s our character.

We’re the immigrants who stowed away on ships to reach these shores, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free – Holocaust survivors, Soviet defectors, the Lost Boys of Sudan. We are the hopeful strivers who cross the Rio Grande because they want their kids to know a better life. That’s how we came to be.

We’re the slaves who built the White House and the economy of the South. We’re the ranch hands and cowboys who opened the West, and countless laborers who laid rail, and raised skyscrapers, and organized for workers’ rights.

We’re the fresh-faced GIs who fought to liberate a continent, and we’re the Tuskeegee Airmen, Navajo code-talkers, and Japanese-Americans who fought for this country even as their own liberty had been denied. We’re the firefighters who rushed into those buildings on 9/11, and the volunteers who signed up to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq.

We are the gay Americans whose blood ran on the streets of San Francisco and New York, just as blood ran down this bridge.

We are storytellers, writers, poets, and artists who abhor unfairness, and despise hypocrisy, and give voice to the voiceless, and tell truths that need to be told.

We are the inventors of gospel and jazz and the blues, bluegrass and country, hip-hop and rock and roll, our very own sounds with all the sweet sorrow and reckless joy of freedom.

We are Jackie Robinson, enduring scorn and spiked cleats and pitches coming straight to his head, and stealing home in the World Series anyway.

We are the people Langston Hughes wrote of, who “build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how.”

We are the people Emerson wrote of, “who for truth and honor’s sake stand fast and suffer long;” who are “never tired, so long as we can see far enough.”

That’s what America is. Not stock photos or airbrushed history or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American as others. We respect the past, but we don’t pine for it. We don’t fear the future; we grab for it. America is not some fragile thing; we are large, in the words of Whitman, containing multitudes. We are boisterous and diverse and full of energy, perpetually young in spirit. That’s why someone like John Lewis at the ripe age of 25 could lead a mighty march.

And that’s what the young people here today and listening all across the country must take away from this day. You are America. Unconstrained by habits and convention. Unencumbered by what is, and ready to seize what ought to be. For everywhere in this country, there are first steps to be taken, and new ground to cover, and bridges to be crossed. And it is you, the young and fearless at heart, the most diverse and educated generation in our history, who the nation is waiting to follow.

Because Selma shows us that America is not the project of any one person.

Because the single most powerful word in our democracy is the word “We.” We The People. We Shall Overcome. Yes We Can. It is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone. Oh, what a glorious task we are given, to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.

Fifty years from Bloody Sunday, our march is not yet finished. But we are getting closer. 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. When it feels the road’s too hard, when the torch we’ve been passed feels too heavy, we will remember these early travelers, and draw strength from their example, and hold firmly the words of the prophet Isaiah:

“Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not be faint.”

We honor those who walked so we could run. We must run so our children soar. And we will not grow weary. For we believe in the power of an awesome God, and we believe in this country’s sacred promise.

May He bless those warriors of justice no longer with us, and bless the United States of America.

Read next: Democrats in Selma Gear Up for Long Fight on Voting Rights

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TIME

President Barack Obama Praises Selma’s Example

The President spoke in Alabama to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historic march for voting rights

President Barack Obama marked the 50th anniversary of one of the Civil Rights movement’s ugliest days by invoking the present-day struggle for human rights around the globe and confronting the controversy over how police treat African-Americans in the United States today.

Obama called upon the power of the example of the protesters who were beaten as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in the historic voting rights march.

“What could be more American than what happened in this place?” Obama said.

In a speech given a half century since the violent attack by police which set into motion the passage of increased voting rights for African-Americans, the President called upon the more than 100 members of Congress present to return to Washington and increase voting protections for all Americans.

The Selma address was an opportunity for the first black President to reflect publicly on the efforts of many throughout history who made his presidency a reality. It arrived amid a series of present-day challenges that have forced Americans to confront how far the country has progressed since that confrontation between marchers and police officers.

This week, a Justice Department report revealed deep prejudices among police officers in Ferguson, Mo., where an unarmed black teenager was killed by a white police officer last year. Throughout the past year, the names of young black men who have died at the hands of police officers have become a rallying cry for protesters who have revived a national conversation about policing and equality.

What happened in Ferguson may not be unique, but it’s no longer endemic, or sanctioned by law and custom; and before the Civil Rights movement, it most surely was,” Obama said.

Obama dismissed the notion that little has changed in the past 50 years, noting advances for people of color, women, and gay Americans, but said more must be done.

“The march is not yet over, the race is not yet won,” Obama said.

The President was one of many luminaries gathering in Alabama this weekend to commemorate the anniversary. He also joined by many who participated in the march.

“This is like my graduation,”said 104-year-old Amelia Boynton Robinson. “I’m very proud because my mother said many years ago, we’re going to have a black president.”

On March 7, 1965, more than 600 protesters attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., the state capital to register to vote. Their march was halted by Alabama state troopers who attacked the protesters. Five months later, riding a wade of national protest, Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, the federal law preventing discrimination in voting.

Some 50 years since the march, key parts of the Voting Rights Act, were invalidated by a Supreme Court decision that Congress has not addressed. On Saturday, the President called on the members of Congress in attendance to pass an amendment to the act.

“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,” Obama said.

Attending the President’s speech, Sen. Tim Scott, the South Carolina and first African-American Republican to be elected to Senate since Reconstruction, said in an interview that voting rights should not be “politicized.”

“Their sacrifice could easily be trampled by making racial justice into a partisan issue,” Scott said. “A conversation about voting rights is appropriate, politicizing it is not.”

One of the protesters attacked on the Edmund Pettus Bridge was John Lewis, who joined Obama in Selma this weekend.”I thought I was going to die on that bridge,” Lewis said Saturday, speaking from the pulpit of Selma’s A.M.E. Brown Church where the young Civil Rights leader took refuge that day. “I thought I saw death.” Lewis, today a Congressman from Georgia, led the delegation of Congressmen to Alabama for the weekend. Earlier in the week, Republicans in Congress came under fire when no member of the party’s leadership was expected to attend the event. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy announced late Friday he would attend.

Obama was joined by former President George W. Bush, who in 2006 reauthorized the Voting Rights Act.

Obama said the courage shown at Selma remains an example to the world.

“This generation of young people can draw strength from this place,” the President said, “where the powerless could change the world’s greatest superpower, and push their leaders to expand the boundaries of freedom.

Charlotte Alter and Victor Luckerson contributed reporting from Selma, Ala.

TIME White House

Obama Focuses on Ferguson Police, Not Officer

President Barack Obama speaks during a town-hall meeting about the importance of community involvement on March 6, 2015, at Benedict College in Columbia, S.C.
Rainier Ehrhardt—AP President Barack Obama speaks during a town-hall meeting about the importance of community involvement on March 6, 2015, at Benedict College in Columbia, S.C.

He said the officer who shot an unarmed black teen should not be charged, but noted protesters had a point about the police force

President Obama seemed to affirm both sides of the divisive debate over the shooting last year of an unarmed black teen by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo.

At a town hall-style appearance at Benedict College, a historically black college in Columbia, S.C., Obama said the Department of Justice was right to not bring federal charges against former office Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown, noting that it conducted an “objective, thorough, independent” investigation.

“You can’t just charge anybody because what happened was tragic,” Obama said.

In the same breath, though, Obama said another report from the Department of Justice this week that showed there was systematic racial bias within Ferguson Police Department affirmed what those who protested Brown’s death and the subsequent decision not to bring charges had been saying all along.

“I don’t think what happened in Ferguson was typical,” Obama said Friday. “But, what happened in Ferguson is not a complete aberration.”

Obama called the situation in Ferguson, where officers used traffic stops to generate revenue and targeted African American residents for stops, searches, and fines, “oppressive and abusive.” He also noted the release of a recent report by a task force set up in response to Ferguson and a handful of other high-profile killings of black men by police officers. The President said that report includes specific ways to help restore trust in law enforcement within communities.

“Our goal should be to stop circumstances like Ferguson from happening again,” Obama said.

Obama’s appearance in Columbia comes just one day before he travels to Selma to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the events on Bloody Sunday, when peaceful protestors were attacked by state and local police officers in Alabama while marching for voting rights. At a commemorative event on Saturday, the president is expected to talk about the events in Ferguson and the effect younger generations can have on making change.

TIME White House

Obama Says Civil Rights in U.S. ‘Unfinished Project’ Ahead of Selma Speech

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during an exclusive interview with Reuters in the Library of the White House in Washington on March 2, 2015.
Kevin Lamarque—Reuters U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during an exclusive interview with Reuters in the Library of the White House in Washington on March 2, 2015.

President Obama said Friday that the work begun by civil rights activists in Selma, Alabama fifty years ago is still not complete, as he prepares to visit the town this weekend on the anniversary of the historic march.

“This is an unfinished project,” the President said in an interview on the Tom Joyner Morning Show on Friday. “I say to my daughters the same thing I say to the young people who work for me, and that is it is a glorious task that we are given to continually try to improve this great country of ours.”

The President cited the the Department of Justice’s scathing report on the Ferguson, Missouri Police Department released this week as evidence that the country still had work to do on civil rights for black Americans. In the report, patterns of racial bias and unfair treatment of black residents was brought to light in the wake of the shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer.

“There is, you know, work to be done right now,” Obama said.

The President gave the interview as the First Family prepares to travel to Selma to commemorate the half-century anniversary of the historic march that helped push lawmakers to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The anniversary is being met with much fanfare: the President will speak on Saturday and lead a march on the Edmund Pettus bridge. Luminaries and politicians, including former President George W. Bush and former First Lady Laura Bush, will be in attendance.

In his Saturday speech, the President is likely to discuss Ferguson and the lingering battle to protect voting rights in the wake of the Supreme Court decision that struck down a part of the very act that will be celebrated. He’ll note the work of Congressman John Lewis, who was a student organizer and on the front lines on March 7, 1965, also known as Bloody Sunday. Yet, the President said Friday the great thing about Selma is “it celebrates all those folks who don’t have their name on a plaque or a statue.”

“It wasn’t just Dr. King making a great speech, although I think he is an icon for the ages. It wasn’t just John Lewis, although I don’t know of a more courageous or a sweet man than him,” Obama said. “But it was also just people who went back to their lives after it was done.”

And though the President said he talks to his daughters about what work needs to be done to improve the U.S., he doesn’t think they’ll take the same route he took to get it done.

“I am very doubtful that they will want to run for public office, you know,” said Obama. “Partly because they’ve been listening to their mother.”

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