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50 Years Ago, Selma's Bloody Sunday Sparked Voting Rights Act


This week marks 50 years since Alabama state troopers beat back civil rights marchers as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on a journey from Selma to Montgomery. That confrontation was known as Bloody Sunday, and it sparked passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Since then, Selma has become a rallying cry for equal rights. NPR's Debbie Elliott has this look at its legacy.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Overlooking the Alabama River from downtown, there's a tiny park tucked beneath the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It's called Songs of Selma and is a place of reflection for Lynda Blackmon Lowery.

LYNDA BLACKMON LOWERY: I can look at the bridge and songs come to mind like how I got over, how I got over the bridge to freedom.

ELLIOTT: Lowery was 14 years old on Bloody Sunday. As awful as it was...

LOWERY: I'm almost thankful for being beaten on that bridge and having that march that day because that brought attention to what was actually happening to our people. All they was asking for was the simple right to vote.

ELLIOTT: Seeking the right to vote was a dangerous proposition in Selma, known in civil rights circles as one of the toughest places to crack.

BERNARD LAFAYETTE: They had scratched Selma off the map - X.

ELLIOTT: Bernard Lafayette recalls seeing an X mark by Selma when he was working for SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

LAFAYETTE: 'Cause they had already sent down two teams of SNCC workers. And they came back with the same report - nothing can happen in Selma, and they had the same reason - that the white folks were too mean, and black folks were too afraid.

ELLIOTT: He took the job, director of the Selma voter registration project in 1963. He recruited in schools, explaining how getting the vote could change the segregated system. Bennie Lee Tucker, now a Selma city councilman, was in college at the time. He says local students and teachers buoyed by progress in Birmingham tried to register black voters.

BENNIE LEE TUCKER: We started knocking on doors. A lot of people was afraid. No, I'm not going to get in that mess. They would say, I'm not going to get in that mess 'cause they knew the repercussion they was going to get from the white.

ELLIOTT: Selma's white elite used economic intimidation, says Bernard Lafayette.

LAFAYETTE: When a person went to a mass meeting or spoke out and that kind of thing, they would go and fire your mother-in-law from her job.

ELLIOTT: Then there was the violence. Lafayette was attacked, and sheriff's deputies roughed up black citizens who came to the courthouse to register to vote. The catalyst for something bigger came in early 1965. An Alabama state trooper shot and killed a young black man, Jimmie Lee Jackson, during a demonstration in nearby Marion, Ala. Activists decided to march from Selma to the capital to confront Governor George Wallace. Georgia Congressman John Lewis, originally from Troy, Ala., was a leader of the march. Standing at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Lewis recalls how they walked, two by two, up the sidewalk.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN LEWIS: We got to the highest point on this bridge. Down below, we saw a sea of blue - Alabama state troopers.

ELLIOTT: Led by Major John Cloud.


MAJOR JOHN CLOUD: Your order's to disperse. Go home or go to your church. This march will not continue.

ELLIOTT: Lewis says the marchers asked to kneel and pray.

LEWIS: And the major said, troopers advance.


LEWIS: And they came forward, beating us with nightsticks, tramping us with horses.

ELLIOTT: Releasing tear gas. Lynda Lowery.

LOWERY: And we were on our knees when I heard the - what sounded like gunshots.


LOWERY: And this gas burned your eyes and your throat and your nose, and you can't breathe. You can't see. You're confused.

ELLIOTT: Lowery said she was dragged from the bridge and beaten, needing more than 30 stitches in her head. John Lewis's head was also cracked open.

LEWIS: I said I don't understand it, how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam and cannot send troops to Selma, Ala., to protect people who only desires to register to vote.

ELLIOTT: Lewis and Hosea Williams called Montgomery attorney Fred Gray, the legal mind behind the Montgomery Bus Boycott 10 years prior. Gray says he filed a federal lawsuit the next day and won federal protection for the marchers led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to make the five-day journey to Montgomery on March 21.

FRED GRAY: If we had not filed the lawsuit, George Wallace was not going to let them march from Selma to Montgomery.

ELLIOTT: But already, Gray says, the violent resistance on Bloody Sunday had struck a national nerve.

GRAY: As a result of the publicity and everything else that occurred, we had the passage of the Voting Rights Act.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) I'm walking for my freedom.

ELLIOTT: President Obama and the first family will be in Selma Saturday for commemorative events. On Sunday, there will be a symbolic bridge crossing. Congressman John Lewis says it's a time to acknowledge what the movement here meant for the country and the world.

LEWIS: Selma is more than the name of a city. It's more than a place. It's almost the realization of an idea.

ELLIOTT: Selma has served as a touchstone for present-day protests. Musician John Legend invoked it accepting an Oscar for best song from the movie "Selma." Selma is now, Legend said, because the struggle for justice is right now.


JOHN LEGEND: We know we got more work to do, and we're going to do that work. We want to do that work. And we hope that our song is inspiration for those who want to do that work as well.

ELLIOTT: Alabama civil rights attorney Fred Gray says 50 years later, the country has never fully confronted ingrained racism and lingering discrimination.

GRAY: As long as we think that because we have a person of color in the White House and running the Justice Department that we have arrived, the struggle for equal justice continues.

ELLIOTT: The struggle in Selma half a century later is one for economic survival in a town where 42 percent of people live in poverty. Debbie Elliott, NPR News.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Walking for my freedom. Come on and walk with me. I'm walking for my freedom. Lord... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.