Thousands of people crowded on to a small Alabama bridge on Sunday to commemorate the bloody confrontation 50 years ago between police and peaceful protesters that helped bring about the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
A day after President Barack Obama had walked atop the Edmund Pettus Bridge, many jammed shoulder to shoulder, as they recalled the civil rights struggle and walked in historic footsteps. Police said at least 15,000 to 20,000 people had joined the throng on and around the small bridge.
Obama and other leaders delivered spirited speeches in Selma on Saturday in remembrance of the violence that broke out on March 7, 1965, when police tear-gassed and beat peaceful marchers, who gatherer to protest voting restrictions and the fatal shooting of a black activist by police weeks earlier.
"Fifty years from 'Bloody Sunday,' our march is not yet finished. But we are getting closer," Obama said Saturday to a crowd estimated to be more than 40,000 strong.
Sunday's events commemorating the 50th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday" kicked off with the Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King Unity Breakfast at Wallace Community College, followed by film screenings in the city. The city also honored President Lyndon Johnson, who signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act. His daughter, Luci Baines Johnson, accepted an award Sunday morning on his behalf.
"You remember how deeply Daddy cared about social justice and how hard he worked to make it happen," she said, as a crowd of hundreds gave the late president a standing ovation — some chanting, “L.B.J., L.B.J.”
Crowds gathered to watch Sunday morning’s service at Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where the march to Montgomery began in 1965. Inside, speakers — including outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder, Martin Luther King III and Jesse Jackson — expressed their optimism about steps the country has taken toward equality, but also said there was still work to be done.
“There’s something wrong with us purporting to support and practice democracy all over the globe and yet suppressing democracy at home,” said Martin Luther King III at the service. But he also echoed the sentiment of resolve and hope spread by his late father. “We’re gonna be alright, we’re not there yet,” he said.
Rev. Al Sharpton, Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson were also in attendance. Gwen Carr, the mother of a Staten Island man who died after he was put in a police chokehold last July, also sat in the pews of the historic church Sunday.
Holder focused on the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision that struck down the section of the celebrated Voting Rights Act that once required states with a history of voting suppression to get permission from the Justice Department before amending any voting laws. Holder said it is clear that voting rights are “under siege,” but vowed that he and the Justice Department will continue to ensure that “all Americans — young or old, rich or poor, famous or unknown; no matter who they are, where they’re from, what they look like, or whom they love — has an equal share in the American Dream.”
On the steps of the state capitol in Montgomery, Peggy Wallace, daughter of former Gov. George Wallace, did what she says her father should have done 50 years ago - she welcomed John Lewis home.
"Today, as his daughter and as a person of my own," said Wallace, "I want to do for you what my father should have done and recognize you for your humanity and for your dignity as a child of God, as a person of good will and character, and as a fellow Alabamian and say, ‘Welcome home.’"
On Monday morning marches will set off for the Alabama state Capitol in Montgomery with plans to arrive on Friday afternoon — the same spot where, five decades ago, Martin Luther King Jr. assured a crowd of 25,000 that racial equality and justice would eventually prevail.
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The Associated Press contributed to this report