Marchers remember `Bloody Sunday'

Clinton, activists mark 35th anniversary of Ala. attack on rights workers

March 06, 2000|By COX NEWS SERVICE

SELMA, Ala. -- President Clinton joined civil rights activists yesterday at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in marking the 35th anniversary of the attack on voting rights marchers that he said made it possible for white Southerners like him to reach the White House.

Clinton locked arms with Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Georgia and Coretta Scott King to lead the marchers to the crest of the bridge where they stopped and prayed before continuing across.

It was March 7, 1965, when Lewis, then a young voting rights organizer, suffered a fractured skull and was left for dead after being beaten by Alabama state troopers intent on halting the rights march through Selma to the state capital, Montgomery, 54 miles away.

The "Bloody Sunday" beatings, televised on newscasts across the United States, galvanized the nation and pressured Congress to pass that summer the Voting Rights Act that guaranteed the right to vote regardless of race.

Mrs. King, widow of the civil rights leader, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was also joined by Hosea Williams. Like Lewis, Williams was an aide to Dr. King in the 1960s.

"As long as there is any inequality [or] prejudice against any Americans because of the color of their skin or sexual preference, we have a very long bridge to cross," Clinton told a peaceful gathering of about 7,000 before they re-enacted the walk across the bridge.

"It has been said that the Voting Rights Act was signed in ink in Washington," the president said. "But it was first signed in blood in Selma."

Lewis, who marches every year to mark the anniversary, had invited Clinton. Speaking to the crowd, he recounted how the troopers had used tear gas, bullwhips and clubs to attack the marchers, who were protesting poll taxes and other methods used to prevent blacks from voting.

"They turned our nonviolent protest into blood," Lewis said. "Today, when we walk arm and arm across this bridge, no one will beat us. No one will taunt us and call us names. Today, no one will lose their life for the precious right to vote."

Several weeks after the 1965 attack, Dr. King -- under the protection of a federal court -- led hundreds of people in completing the long march to Montgomery.

The march is widely seen as having launched the careers of black leaders such as Lewis, now serving his seventh term in Congress. It also paved the way for a new type of white Southern politician who could campaign for civil rights and, in the process, benefit from the new-found freedom of blacks and other minorities to freely vote in elections.

Without the changes brought about by the Selma march in 1965, Clinton said, "Atlanta never would have had the Super Bowl or the Olympics, and Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton would never have been elected president of the United States.

"I, too, am a son of the South, the old segregated South," Clinton said. "Those of you who marched 35 years ago set me free, too, on Bloody Sunday. Free to know you, to work with you, to love you. I thank you all for what you did here.

"I tell you, as long as Americans are willing to hold hands, we can walk with any wind, we can cross any bridge. Deep in my heart I do believe, we shall overcome."

Clinton urged those who benefited from the Voting Rights Act to exercise the hard-fought right in this year's elections.

During the original 1965 march, mobs of angry whites insulted Lewis and his fellow protesters. He was among 17 who were hospitalized. On Sunday, the mostly black crowd cheered proudly.

Nearby, Alabama state troopers -- white and black -- saluted the marchers as they sang, "We Shall Overcome."

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