Thousands of marchers, many singing “We Shall Overcome” or “This Little Light of Mine,” turned out Sunday to retrace the steps their forebears took half a century ago on the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge.
The route was the same, but the conditions were far different. Instead of enduring tear gas and billy clubs on what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday,” visitors crossed the bridge with smiles and songs.
On the weekend marking the 50th anniversary of the demonstration that led to the Voting Rights Act’s passage, some marchers locked arms and some knelt to pray as they crossed the bridge — named for a Confederate general who was also a leader of the Ku Klux Klan.
The March 7, 1965, protest had been planned to go from Selma to Montgomery but was delayed by law enforcement violence. Marchers reached Montgomery on March 25, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed demonstrators at the state Capitol steps.
On Sunday, Claudia Mitchell, 62, came from her home in Montgomery, about 50 miles east, and took photos of her daughter Temisha at the foot of the bridge. Mitchell had joined the 1965 marchers as they entered Montgomery, and remembers many of them staying at her parents' house at night.
“We couldn't even stay in the hotels then,” Mitchell said. “So I'm here to commemorate that day.”
Sunday started with fiery sermons at Brown Chapel Church, where the 1965 marchers based themselves. Several speakers, including U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. and the Rev. Al Sharpton, called for restoration of the Voting Rights Act, which was weakened by a 2013 Supreme Court ruling, Shelby County vs. Holder.
In a 5-4 decision, the high court struck down a key part of the act that required Southern states to seek federal approval before changing their election laws or redrawing districts.
“This may be the most important case of our generation,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson said in an interview. “They gutted the act.”
The congregation at Brown Chapel included Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Loretta Lynch, President Obama's nominee to succeed Holder as U.S. attorney general.
In a speech, Sharpton said, “We know why they went across that bridge, and there’s still some bridges we have to cross.”
Literally, however, Sharpton and his fellow dignitaries didn't make it on time for Sunday’s planned midday bridge crossing. With the Secret Service and other security infrastructure that had accompanied Obama on Saturday gone, Sunday’s crowds overwhelmed authorities. By midday, the bridge was packed with people.
Alabama state troopers and local police tried to persuade demonstrators to make room for motorcades.
Rose Sanders, a local civil rights activist, grabbed a bullhorn. “Please, everybody, I'm pleading with you, clear the bridge,” she said. She burst into laughter at the futility of her plea.
“We've never had this many people in Selma. You're gonna have to forgive us! We don't know what we're doing!” Sanders said.
Although various dignitaries didn't get to the head of the line, many aged people who had walked with King in 1965 did. They led the way across the bridge.
“This is no party; this is no picnic,” the Rev. William Barber shouted into a bullhorn at the head of the line. He gestured to the elderly original walkers. “What they had was discipline. Somebody say discipline!”
“Discipline!” the crowd responded.
Several helicopters and at least one drone hovered, and marchers waved at them from the bridge.
Back at Brown Chapel, Holder urged state legislatures “to lift restrictions that currently disenfranchise millions of citizens convicted of felonies” and added that his expected successor, Lynch, who is also black, “will continue to fight aggressively on behalf of this sacred right.”
On the bridge, a group of ex-convicts carried a banner that read, “Formerly incarcerated people — we demand our civil and human rights.”
Holder also drew applause by nodding to current controversies in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere across the U.S. He noted that the activist Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was killed in Marion, Ala., in 1965, was an unarmed black man.
“We will march on,” Holder said, calling on listeners to “challenge entrenched power.”
On the bridge, numerous groups chanted, “Hands up, don't shoot” and “I can't breathe,” references respectively to Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York City, unarmed black men killed in confrontations with police.
A large contingent of Latino marchers carried placards and called for more rights for immigrants. Jasmine Contreras, 27, of Clanton, Ala., came with a group called the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice. “We are just here to bring attention to the need for fairness,” she said.
Louis McCarter, 65, of Birmingham, Ala., found some peace and shade under the bridge with his 10-year-old granddaughter, Chelsea.
McCarter remembers the bad times in Birmingham, he said. He brought his granddaughter to Selma to see where much of the civil rights struggle took place.
“Our lives are better because of this,” he said.
Donald Harris, 66, chairman emeritus of the men’s division of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Push Coalition, led one of two busloads of Rainbow Push supporters from Chicago to Selma.
All the way, he said, the travelers had discussed the significance of Bloody Sunday and the importance of passing the torch of the civil rights struggle to the younger generation.
The group included seniors who marched in 1965, he said. “We don’t know if any of us will be back here again.”
Patrick O’Neill, wearing a T-shirt that bore King’s image, stood among Sunday’s swarm of people on the bridge. Around his neck, O’Neill wore a sign reading, “I’m sorry.”
He runs a branch of a Christian pacifist organization called Catholic Worker House in North Carolina.
“I feel I need to accept responsibility for my privilege as a white male,” said O’Neill, 58. “I didn’t want to make it complicated. Just two words of repentance.”
Elvira Carter, 48, of Butler, Ala., overheard him. “I just want to shake your hand,” she said.
“It’s good to see someone apologizing,” Carter said. “It’s not your fault. It’s not mine. But thank you.”
Teague and Simmons reported from Selma, Ala., Pearce from Los Angeles.