U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro are among the officials and civil rights leaders in Selma, Alabama this weekend commemorating the 50th anniversary of the "Bloody Sunday" events that led to the Voting Rights Act and changed the course of U.S. history. In separate phone interviews with NBC News, both men spoke about the meaning of civil rights then and now.
"Anniversaries are always a time of reflection and renewal; it's a time to see how far we have come," said Perez, one of the speakers at Sunday's Unity Breakfast and pre-march rally. "The fact that the first African American president will be there is a remarkable tribute."
But the Dominican-American Labor Secretary, who previously led the civil rights division for the Department of Justice, was quick to say it was "regrettable" that five decades later, civil rights are still an issue, citing Alabama's "ill-conceived immigration law rivaling Arizona's as a bellweather of the work that lies ahead."
"I spent a lot of time in Alabama with schoolteachers who wanted to teach their kids and didn't want to become immigration cops," said Perez, referring to the passage of Alabama's stringent immigration law several years ago. He also expressed concern over restrictive voter laws in Alabama and other states which he said made it "impossible" for some to vote.
"Voting is the foundational right on which everything else follows. If we want to raise the minimum wage, if we want to pass immigration or education reform you've got to have people in office reflect your values," said Perez.
Housing Secretary Julián Castro said this will be the first time he marches on the Edmund Pettus bridge. As Housing Secretary, he plays a role in enforcing the 1960s civil rights legislation that included protecting Americans against discrimination in housing. But he also said being there takes on a personal note.
"The significance of Selma transcends black and white - the events of Selma also inspired the Chicano Movement that my parents were part of," said Castro. "A lot of progress has happened because of the activism that took place on that bridge and that inspired members of the Latino community to become active as well."
Like Perez, Castro said 50 years after the historic march, safeguarding voting rights and protections is of paramount importance.
Castro recalled a story he told while helping to mark the recent 10th anniversary celebration of Voto Latino. At 16, a young Castro volunteered for the campaign of city councilwoman María Berriozábal, who at the time was attempting a run for Mayor of San Antonio, Texas. At a bus stop the night of the election, a mother with two children - who Castro said did not seem the type who would be paying close attention to a municipal race - said, 'Did we win?' The operative word, said Castro, was that the young mother said the word "we."
"America's destiny and Latino destiny are intertwined; it makes sense to fully participate and impact policy making in years to come, and that can only happen if we have a legal framework that encourages rather than discourages voting," said Castro.
Labor Secretary Perez said there were still challenges ahead, but he was optimistic about the future. "There's a reason we celebrate Martin Luther King Day and not George Wallace Day," said Perez, referring to the segregationist Alabama governor.
"The arc of the moral universe bends toward justice," said Perez, quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. "But it doesn't bend on its own," he added.
--Sandra Lilley and Suzanne Gamboa