Bloody Sunday commemoration commences in Selma
By Aamer Madhani, USA TODAY
SELMA, Ala. — They have come from coast to coast to commemorate a solemn moment in civil rights history, but also to renew their commitment to a fight that many say isn’t finished.
Tens of thousands of Americans are gathering here on Saturday to mark the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when marchers attempting to walk from Selma to Montgomery to demand an end to discriminatory polling practices were viciously attacked by police.
It took two more attempts for marchers—led by John Lewis and Hosea Williams—to successfully complete their roughly 50-mile trip to Montgomery. But their determination — and the searing images of the violence during that first march — shook the nation’s collective conscience and helped usher in the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Luci Baines Johnson, the younger daughter of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, recalled to USA TODAY being by her father’s side the day he signed the voting act into law.
“This marks a sacred moment in our history,” said Johnson, who traveled to Selma to take part in commemoration. “There were so many heroes that led to this day, the ones whose names we know but also those who were fighting in the shadows and whose names weren’t recorded in the history books.”
Participants began arriving Thursday for a five-day commemoration that will reach its apex today when President Obama will speak from the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where the marchers were bloodied by state troopers and sheriff’s posse armed with tear gas and clubs.
Obama previously took part in the annual commemoration in 2007, when he was serving in the Senate. The nation’s first African-American president has tied his own rise in politics to those who marched in Selma 50 years ago. In addition to Obama, former President George W. Bush and dozens of federal lawmakers are in Selma to pay tribute to the foot soldiers of the voting rights movement.
The commemoration comes at another difficult period in race relations in America, following the recent high-profile killings by police of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y., and Tamir Rice in Cleveland.
This week, the Justice Department issued a scathing report detailing institutional racism in the Ferguson Police Department, while clearing former police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting last summer of the unarmed 18-year-old Brown, whose killing galvanized nationwide protests. Brown’s family announced this week their intention to file a wrongful death lawsuit against Ferguson and Wilson.
“I feel a direct connection to what happened in Selma and wanted to be here,” said Gwenn Carr, the mother of Garner, who is taking part in the commemoration. “What happened back then, what’s happening today, it’s déjà vu.”
Over the past two days, at forums and gatherings at some of the same Selma churches that served as the nerve centers of the 1965 movement, civil rights leaders have been calling on Americans to pressure Congress over the passage of stringent voter ID rules and other new voting rules that have been passed in several states after the Supreme Court struck down a key provision in the landmark legislation nearly two years ago.
In what is known as the Shelby ruling, the high court ruled that the Voting Rights Act formula used to determine which parts of the country would need federal approval — known as pre-clearance — to change their voting procedures was outdated. The court instructed Congress to write a formula that was reflective of current conditions, but Congress has yet to act.
“The voting rights act is being dismantled,” said Kirsten Moller, who traveled to Selma from San Francisco to be part of the commemoration. “We need to protect it. It’s not a given. We need to be vigilant.”
Many participants came to Selma this weekend simply to be inspired.
“I felt I needed to come here to understand my history,” said Joshua Shuck, 22, of Queens, N.Y. “It feels like I’m also getting a chance to be a part of history.”