Thousands gather to commemorate Bloody Sunday anniversary

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.
The violence preceded the Selma-to-
Montgomery march, which occurred two
weeks later. Both helped build momentum
for congressional approval of the Voting
Rights Act later that year.
Dozens of charter buses from across the
country 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,
traveled overnight with a group of NAACP
members from central Florida to get to
Selma for the day. McCloud said she's both
honoring 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 traveled 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.
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
honors the brave foot soldiers who risked
their lives to secure the blessings of liberty
for all Americans," he said.
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.
Today, Selma still struggles to overcome
its legacy.
The city's population has declined by about
40 percent 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 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 Martin Luther
King's "I Have a Dream" speech on the
steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Last year,
he addressed the 50th anniversary of the
signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by
President Lyndon B. Johnson.
On Saturday, Obama will lead a tribute at
the Edmund Pettus Bridge to mark the
50th anniversary of what became known as
"Bloody Sunday," when police set upon
scores of people marching from Selma to
Montgomery, Alabama, clobbering and
tear-gassing them until they were bloody.
They were protesting their inability to
vote.
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.
"Not just the legends and the giants of the
Civil Rights Movement like Dr. King and
John Lewis, but the countless American
heroes whose names aren't in the history
books, that aren't etched on marble
somewhere — ordinary men and women
from all corners of this nation, all walks of
life, black and white, rich and poor,
students, scholars, maids, ministers — all
who marched and who sang and organized
to change this country for the better,"
Obama said at a Black History Month
observance at the White House.
Obama's Selma remarks are expected to
touch on the issue of voting rights. Obama
also addressed the issue in his State of the
Union address. His administration has
challenged Southern states that have
imposed new voting requirements,
including showing picture 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.