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Virtual service, no John Lewis: ‘Bloody Sunday’ in Selma looked different, remained strong

SELMA, Ala. — The process was different for this year’s commemoration of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, but the spirit was the same.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 56th commemoration of the event was largely virtual. And the event was missing one of its regular attendees – John Lewis. The civil rights icon passed away last year at the age of 80.

But the event still memorialized the proceedings of March 7, 1965, when hundreds of civil rights foot soldiers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in an attempt to march to Montgomery in support of voting rights for Blacks.

They were met on the east side of the bridge by Alabama State Troopers and mounted sheriff’s posse men and brutally beaten. The images of that day and the national outrage that resulted helped led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In the wake of the carnage on the bridge, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. put out a call for people to come to Selma. Two weeks later another march began. That time it succeeded in reaching Montgomery. 

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Martin Luther King III, from left, civil rights icon Bernard Lafayette, Rep. Teri Sewell and foot solider Sheyann Webb-Christburg lead the march during the 56th Selma Bridge Crossing Jubilee on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on Sunday, March 7, 2021.

President Joe Biden marked the day with the signing of an executive order which promotes voting registration and access. It also directs heads of federal agencies to give federal employees time off to vote or to serve as non-partisan poll workers and revamps the government’s Vote.gov website. 

“Every eligible voter should be able to vote and have it counted,” the president said. “If you have the best ideas, you have nothing to hide. Let the people vote.”

‘Let the people vote’:Biden signs executive order promoting voter access, marking anniversary of Selma march

Before a virtual re-enactment of a bridge crossing, speakers took part in the Brown Chapel service. The historic African Methodist Episcopal church served as headquarters and sanctuary for the Selma Movement.

There were speeches from national leaders, singing of gospel and freedom songs, looks back on history and looks forward to challenges of today of racism and efforts at voter suppression.

History brought people together over social media and the Selma Bridge Crossing Jubilee website, which broadcast the events of the weekend, said AME Bishop Harry L. Seawright.

“We salute all people who crossed that bridge on Sunday,” he said “It was only an act of God no one was killed.”

A small group crossed the bridge at about noon. The virtual effort included historical footage of that day, and quotes from people who were part of the 1965 march. The footage began with Alvin Garrett, a Grammy nominated artist from Birmingham, singing his song “It Starts in the Heart”.

The song begins with him at the apex of the bridge, and then he walks backward along the route, back to Brown Chapel.

Modern aerial footage was used along with shots of a small group of people wearing masks walking the route and walking across the bridge. The footage included the group stopping to kneel and pray in the middle of U.S. Highway 80, near the very spot where the beatings occurred in 1965.

Usually 40,000 to 50,000 people come to Selma for the commemoration activities according to city and chamber of commerce officials. Hotel rooms in Selma would be full and the overflow in lodging needs would go to regional cities. Calls to several Selma hotels this past week reported about a 50 percent capacity.

An icon was missing

There was a void, however. The late John Lewis, Georgia congressman and one of the the marchers that day who received serious injuries, was an attendee of past commemorations.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis speaks on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on Sunday, March 1, 2020.

“Today, we commemorate the 56th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the day when ordinary Americans in my hometown of Selma, Alabama, brought about extraordinary change as they peacefully demonstrated for the equal right to vote,” said Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., who grew up as a member of Brown Chapel. “Each year, we return to the Edmund Pettus Bridge to honor the heroic sacrifices made by those foot soldiers, but this year, we will do so without my beloved friend, Congressman John Lewis.”

“While my heart breaks knowing that John will not lead this year’s commemorative march, my hope is that we will rededicate ourselves to his life’s work by restoring the full protections of the Voting Rights Act. As we’ve recently seen in state legislatures across this nation, voter suppression is alive and well. That is why we must pass H.R. 4, The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act, to ensure all Americans can fully participate in our democracy,” Sewell said in a statement.

The brutality on the Edmund Pettus Bridge “sanctified a noble struggle,” Biden said. He called on Congress to “fully restore,” the Voting Rights Act which he said the U.S Supreme Court “gutted” in 2013.

“There is an all out assault on the right to vote in state legislatures all across the country,” Biden said, citing dozens of states that have introduced bills that he says would make it harder for Americans to vote. “We can not let them succeed.”

Denise Morse, daughter of civil rights activist C.T. Vivian, and Yvonne Kennedy, daughter of late civil rights leader Joseph Lowery, hold hands as they honor their fathers during the 56th Selma Bridge Crossing Jubilee on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on Sunday, March 7, 2021.

“You know you don’t need a lot of money or a million people,” Vice President Kamala Harris said. “But you do need a righteous cause and a whole lot of resolve. Friends, there is no cause more righteous than the right to vote. It is the right that unlocks so many other rights.”

Reach Montgomery Advertiser reporter Marty Roney on Twitter: mroney@gannett.com

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