For the thousands descending on Selma, Alabama, last weekend for the annual commemoration of the Bloody Sunday march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the events were much like those they had experienced in years previous.
Marchers again traced the path from Brown Chapel AME Church, through the city’s core and across the bridge as part of the Bridge Crossing Jubilee this past weekend.
Southern Poverty Law Center President and CEO Margaret Huang, who led the SPLC’s delegation at the bridge crossing on March 5, said the civil rights battles that started in the 1950s and ’60s are not only unfinished, they are increasing in tempo.
“The SPLC is here because we are deeply committed to making sure voting rights are protected across the South and particularly for communities of color,” Huang said that morning. “This march is a way of reminding everyone of the importance of this work and that we all, as John Lewis called upon us to do, have to stand up and make ‘good trouble.’”
This year was starkly different from previous celebrations. Several buildings were missing. Others were boarded up, not from the economic decline that has plagued Selma in recent years but because of the tornado that tore through the city’s heart two months ago.
The march culminated a week of events honoring the past but acknowledging the very real, current threats to voter rights. Nonviolence training sessions began last week, but alongside the presentations on voter registration and voter mobilization were groups focused on helping families rebuild their homes and repair the physical damage from January’s storm.
This year’s events marked the 58th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when marchers were brutally beaten by white state troopers and sheriff’s deputies, some on horseback, as they tried to cross the bridge on a march to the state Capitol in Montgomery to demand voting rights for Black people.
“Today is 58 years after Bloody Sunday and the march from Selma to Montgomery that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and also two years after the Jan. 6 insurrection,” Huang said. “It has never been more clear that extremism and hate are driving direct threats to our democracy and our civil rights.”
The violence on March 7, 1965, rather than silencing the movement, poured gasoline on the sparks of change. Thousands of activists poured into Selma to join the campaign, culminating in a 54-mile march to the steps of the Alabama Capitol 18 days later and the enactment of the Voting Rights Act the following August.
Struggle on two fronts
For many in Selma today, the struggle is not only for voting rights but day-to-day survival. On the evening of March 3, participants in seminars on voting rights were invited to attend a session on rebuilding Selma, featuring local community leaders and tornado victims. Participants signed up to help rebuild and restore homes across the city on the day before the march.
Others gathered for the annual parade and street festival that day. A battle of the bands kicked off, while seminars on reparations, community mobilizing and voting rights drew members of the crowd.
But on the morning of March 5, the tornado and its aftermath were still top of mind for residents.
“We had all that damage, but not one life was lost,” said George Hallis, a Selma native who marched for civil rights in 1965.
Hallis was a factory worker in the 1960s when President Lyndon Johnson pushed for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Although Hallis saw the good in the legislation, the situation on the ground in Selma did not appreciably change, he said.
“They came in from Washington and wanted to talk to me,” he said. “So they brought me in an office and I told them that they needed to enforce the laws, but not close the plant. Back then, if the owner had to follow the law, they’d rather shut down. I didn’t want that. I wanted the law enforced so it would work and we could work.”
By Sunday, the traditional trappings of the annual commemoration were firmly in place. The commemorative breakfast honoring Martin Luther King Jr. kicked off the morning before participants split up to attend various church services across the city.
They reconvened after lunch at Brown Chapel for a rally in preparation for the march across the bridge. The church was the starting point for the march on Bloody Sunday and a refuge for injured people after the attack on the bridge.
One contingent of about 25 march participants from the SPLC’s Mississippi state office, including the office’s director, Waikinya Clanton, attended the rally at Brown Chapel.
Clanton’s group has been especially active in Mississippi as the state Legislature there has moved to dismantle voting protections, deny funds for critical water infrastructure improvements in majority-Black Jackson and push forward a recent plan to allow white control of the courts and police in that city.
“We are moving,” Clanton said. “That is what we do. There are so many things that need to be done, we can’t just sit still.”
As the crowd in Selma moved from the rally to the foot of the bridge at Water Avenue, it merged with the large gathering already in place awaiting remarks from President Joe Biden. Vendors lined the streets as marchers poured into the downtown area.
While the crowd waited, a gospel quartet got things underway in the shadow of the bridge, leading the crowd through several verses of “This Little Light of Mine” as well as other anthems from the civil rights movement. A few minutes of silence followed until a burst of cheers and applause broke out when the first vehicles of the presidential motorcade topped the bridge on the way into town.
Demanding voting rights
Several speakers preceded Biden, including Selma Mayor James Perkins Jr. and U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, who praised the Biden administration for its push to get emergency aid to the community in the wake of January’s tornado. They also noted the long path ahead with regard to equality for the Black and Brown citizens of Alabama.
“We need statewide representatives in government,” Sewell said. “We don’t have a single statewide member of our government here today. We don’t have a single Black leader elected statewide.”
In his comments, Biden specifically noted the uphill battle Black voters face as Alabama legislators push to minimize their voice in future elections.
“The new law here in Alabama, among other things, enacted a new congressional map that discriminated against Black voters by failing to include what should’ve been a new predominantly Black district,” Biden said. “That case, as you all know better than I, is in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. And my U.S. Department of Justice has joined many of you in arguing that the map violates the Voting Rights Act. All of this comes after a deadly insurrection on January the 6th. We must remain vigilant.”
He also noted his administration’s attempts to provide voter security for Black citizens in the face of enormous “Jim Crow 2.0” efforts nationwide.
“In January, I signed the Electoral Count Reform Act to protect the will of the people and … the peaceful transfer of power,” Biden said. “But we know that we must get the votes in Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act. I’ve made it clear I will not let a filibuster obstruct the sacred right to vote.”
As the president completed his speech and prepared to lead the march across the bridge, the crowd along Broad Street began organizing into groups, each marching unit representing a different church, civil rights group or family.
And then the march began. As Biden led the crowd across, George Hallis was at his side, the 93-year-old foot soldier now leading the army across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
“There are two things the Lord tells us we have to do,” Hallis said. “You have to forgive, and you have to repent. We’ve forgiven. Now it is time for those to repent.”
Thousands cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 5, 2023, as part of Bridge Crossing Jubilee weekend. The events were held ahead of the 58th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when marchers headed to Montgomery were brutally beaten by white state troopers and sheriff’s deputies. (Credit: Lynsey Weatherspoon)