By Jay Reeves
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
SELMA, Ala. _ Thousands of people gathered in Selma, Alabama, on Saturday morning ahead of a speech by President Barack Obama at the 50th anniversary of a landmark event of the civil rights movement.
Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and about 100 members of Congress are converging on the town of roughly 20,000 to commemorate “Bloody Sunday,” the day in 1965 when police attacked marchers demonstrating for voting rights. Bernice King, the daughter of slain civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. also was in Selma.
The violence preceded the Selma-to-Montgomery march led by Martin Luther King, which occurred two weeks later. Both helped build momentum for congressional approval of the Voting Rights Act later that year.
Former President George W. Bush also plans to attend. The congressional delegation will include U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, an Alabama native who was among the marchers seriously injured in the violence 50 years ago.
Congressional Republican leaders were to be absent from the event, but House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio released a statement.
“Today, 50 years after the Selma to Montgomery marches began, the House honours the brave foot soldiers who risked their lives to secure the blessings of liberty for all Americans,” he said.
Dozens of charter buses from across the U.S. and thousands of people poured into the west Alabama town hours before Obama’s speech. It was a festive atmosphere with vendors selling souvenirs commemorating the violent confrontation.
Madeline McCloud of Gainesville, Florida, travelled overnight with a group of members of the NAACP civil rights organization from central Florida to get to Selma for the day. McCloud said she’s both honouring the past and teaching young people about the importance of protecting civil rights.
“I marched with Dr. King in Albany, Georgia,” she said. “For me this could be the end of the journey since I’m 72. I’m stepping back into the history we made.”
McCloud travelled with Dennet Sails, who at 40 is trying to teach young blacks about what it took to gain equal rights.
“I want to make sure I understand the past so I can plan the future,” said Sails, of Tampa, Florida.
More events are planned for Sunday, with civil rights veterans leading a symbolic walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Police beat and tear-gassed marchers at the foot of the bridge on March 7, 1965, in an ugly spasm of violence that shocked the nation. They were protesting their inability to register to vote.
Today, Selma still struggles to overcome its legacy.
The city’s population has declined by about 40 per cent to 20,000 in the last 50 years and Dallas County’s unemployment rate is nearly double the state average. Public schools in Selma are nearly all black; most whites go to private schools.
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley was on hand for the anniversary and said he hoped it could help the state erase ugly images and heal wounds dating back generations.
“Alabama has been behind the curve for not just 50 years, but 150 years,” Bentley said in an interview. “We are just now starting to get out from under the stigma.”
Bentley was a first-year medical student during the Selma debacle in 1965, but he was a student at the University of Alabama and witnessed then-Gov. George C. Wallace’s “stand in the schoolhouse door” to prevent racial integration in 1963.
For Obama, the trip to Selma marks the continued celebration by the first black U.S. president of three of the most important civil rights milestones in America’s tortured racial history.
In 2013, Obama spoke at the 50th anniversary celebration of the Martin Luther King‘s “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Last year, Obama addressed the 50th anniversary of the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
On Saturday, the Obamas will be accompanied by their daughters Malia and Sasha. After the remarks, Obama and the first lady will join marchers in a re-enactment of the bridge walk.
Obama said last week that the family was coming to pay tribute “as Americans to those who changed the course of history” at the bridge.
Obama’s Selma remarks are expected to touch on the issue of voting rights. His administration has challenged Southern states that have imposed new voting requirements, including showing photo identification before being allowed to vote and curtailing opportunities to vote early. Critics of these moves say they disenfranchise mostly minority voters and set back the gains won by civil rights marchers.
A divided U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 in June 2013 to remove from federal law the most effective tool for fighting discrimination against voters. Ruling in a case from Shelby County, Alabama, the high court eliminated the Justice Department’s ability under the Voting Rights Act to identify and stop potentially discriminatory voting laws before they take effect.
Associated Press reporter Darlene Superville contributed from Washington.