Aging civil rights-era figures and a bipartisan congressional delegation observed the 40th anniversary of the historic Selma voting rights march Sunday with church services and ceremonies celebrating the protest that opened ballot boxes to blacks across the South.
Among those on hand to commemorate the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge were singer Harry Belafonte, who took part in the demonstration 40 years ago, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, and Lynda Johnson Robb, whose father, President Lyndon Johnson, signed the Voting Rights Act into law in 1965.
“President Johnson signed that act, but it was written by the people of Selma,” said Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who was clubbed on the head during the “Bloody Sunday” attack on marchers by state troopers and sheriff’s deputies on March 7, 1965. He was among 17 black people hospitalized as that march was turned back.
A second march two weeks later, under the protection of a federal court order and led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., went 50 miles from the bridge over the Alabama River to the steps of the state Capitol in Montgomery.
March spawned Voting Rights Act
The attack and the march inspired passage of the Voting Rights Act, which barred obstacles such as literacy tests that were set up by segregationists to keep blacks from registering to vote.
A re-enactment of the five-day march is planned this week, culminating with a rally at the Capitol on Saturday.
In a service at Brown Chapel, six blocks from the bridge, Lewis cited former President Bill Clinton, who crossed the bridge with Selma marchers in 2000, and former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman as white politicians who have greeted modern civil rights concerns with open arms.
“Five years ago, this governor had all the state troopers line up on that bridge. Five years ago, state troopers, black and white, men and women, stood and saluted us,” Lewis said amid applause for Siegelman.
Some act sections up for renewal
Certain provisions of the Voting Rights Act, such as the use of federal examiners and a requirement for Justice Department approval of election law changes, will be up for renewal by Congress in 2007.
Currently, 74 percent of voting-age blacks in Alabama are listed as active voters. That compares with 77 percent of voting-age whites, based on figures compiled by the secretary of state and the Census Bureau’s estimates of voting-age residents.
In March 1965, only 19.3 percent of eligible blacks were registered in Alabama, compared with 69.2 percent of whites.