Obama, Lawmakers to Commemorate 50th Anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma This Weekend

Demonstrators clash with police in 1965 in Selma, Alabama. Many members of the U.S. Congress are expected at the 50th anniversary of the march to be held in Selma on Sunday, March 8, 2015. (PHOTO CREDIT: The Alabama Dept. of Public Safety via Contra Costa Times)
Demonstrators clash with police in 1965 in Selma, Alabama. Many members of the U.S. Congress are expected at the 50th anniversary of the march to be held in Selma on Sunday, March 8, 2015. (PHOTO CREDIT: The Alabama Dept. of Public Safety via Contra Costa Times)

Nearly one-fifth of Congress will be in Selma, Ala., this weekend with President Barack Obama and his family to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” march – a watershed moment that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

Civil rights groups say the commemoration of this moment in the civil rights movement should spark work in Congress to update the law after the Supreme Court weakened it in 2013. Some congressional supporters say the lawmakers’ pilgrimage could help build support.

Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, will be one of 98 members of both parties from the House of Representatives and the Senate going to Selma.

“It shows me there’s interest by Republicans to guarantee voting rights for African-Americans,” Butterfield said.

Some Republicans believed there was no longer a need for federal oversight of states’ voting changes. Butterfield said he hoped they’d learn about contemporary stories about voting restrictions during the weekend of events and then be willing to consider updating the law.

Civil rights groups are demanding it.

Cornell William Brooks, president and CEO of the NAACP, said in a message to supporters on Thursday that “while we commemorate the anniversary of this great march, we must also remember that our rights are still not secured – Selma is now.” He cited new laws since the Supreme Court decision, such as state ID requirements, that he argued imperiled voting rights.

“Commemoration requires legislation,” Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of rights groups, said in a statement this week. “Selma isn’t just a photo op. It’s a solemn remembrance of the blood, sweat, tears and lives that went into securing voting rights for racial minorities in this country.”

As portrayed in the movie “Selma,” some 600 peaceful protesters led by Hosea Williams and John Lewis set out that day on a march to Montgomery to call for voting rights in Alabama. Police met them on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and brutally attacked them with clubs, whips and tear gas.

Lewis was bloodied with a blow to his head. Now a longtime Democratic congressman from Georgia, he’ll be in Selma again this weekend. Lewis is co-chair emeritus of the board of The Faith and Politics Institute, the group organizing this weekend’s congressional pilgrimage. Its mission is to encourage reflection and discussion across racial, religious and party lines.

In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a requirement that nine states and parts of six others obtain Justice Department approval before making election changes that might disproportionately affect minority voting. The court said Congress should update the law.

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., an honorary co-chairman of the Selma trip and the only African-American Republican in the Senate, said voting rights and the commemoration of Selma should be “de-coupled.”

“The issue of voting rights legislation and the issue of Selma, we ought to have an experience that brings people together and not make it into a political conversation,” Scott said.

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SOURCE: Miami Herald, Renee Schoof and William Douglas

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