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An Alabama State Trooper checks the Edmund Pettus Bridge for explosives before the annual re-enactment of a key event in the civil rights movement in Selma, Ala., March 5, 2017. Vice President Kamala Harris and Attorney General Merrick Garland are among those marking the 59th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama. The events mark law enforcement officers’ March 7, 1965, attack against demonstrators on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. (Albert Cesare/The Montgomery Advertiser via AP, file)
KIM CHANDLER Associated Press
Published: 03 March 2024

SELMA, Ala. (AP) — Attorney General Merrick Garland told parishioners at a Selma church service commemorating the 59th anniversary of the attack by Alabama law officers on Civil Rights demonstrators that voting rights are endangered in much of the nation.

 

Garland told a Bloody Sunday service that decisions by the Supreme Court and lower courts since 2006 have weakened the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was passed in the wake of the police attack. The demonstrators were beaten by officers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965, as they tried to march across Alabama in support of voting rights. Vice President Kamala Harris will lead the annual march across the bridge on Sunday afternoon.

The march and Garland’s speech are among dozens of events during the Selma Bridge Crossing Jubilee, which began Thursday and culminates Sunday.

Garland said the rulings have endangered the voting rights of Black Americans.

“Since those (court) decisions, there has been a dramatic increase in legislative measures that make it harder for millions of eligible voters to vote and to elect representatives of their choice,” Garland told worshippers at Selma’s Tabernacle Baptist Church, the site of one of the first mass meetings of the voting rights movement.

“Those measures include practices and procedures that make voting more difficult; redistricting maps that disadvantage minorities; and changes in voting administration that diminish the authority of locally elected or nonpartisan election administrators,” he said. “Such measures threaten the foundation of our system of government.”

Harris will speak at a rally at the bridge after the march about “the legacy of the civil rights movement, address the ongoing work to achieve justice for all, and encourage Americans to continue the fight for fundamental freedoms that are under attack throughout the country.”

Khadidah Stone, 27, part of a crowd gathered at the bridge Sunday in light rain before the march, sees the work of today's activists as an extension of those who were attacked in Selma in 1965. Stone works for the voter engagement group Alabama Forward, and was a plaintiff in the Voting Rights case against the state that led to creating a second Alabama congressional district with a substantial number of Black voters. Voters will cast their first ballots in that district on Tuesday.

“We have to continue to fight, because they (voting rights) are under attack,” Stone said.

The Selma commemoration is a frequent stop for Democratic politicians paying homage to the voting rights movement. Some in the crowd gathered to see Harris voice apprehension about the upcoming November election and what appears to be a looming rematch between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump.

Nita Hill wore a hat saying "Good Trouble,” a phrase associated with the late Rep. John Lewis, who was beaten on the bridge during Bloody Sunday. Hill, 70, said it is important for Biden supporters to vote in November.

“I believe Trump is trying to take us back,” said Hill, a retired university payroll specialist.

Harris joined the march in 2022, calling the site hallowed ground and giving a speech calling on Congress to defend democracy by protecting people’s right to vote. On that anniversary, Harris spoke of marchers whose “peaceful protest was met with crushing violence.”

“They were kneeling when the state troopers charged,” she said then. “They were praying when the billy clubs struck.”

Images of the violence at the bridge stunned Americans, which helped galvanize support for passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The law struck down barriers prohibiting Black people from voting.

U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, a Democrat of South Carolina who is leading a pilgrimage to Selma, said he is seeking to “remind people that we are celebrating an event that started this country on a better road toward a more perfect union,” but the right to vote is still not guaranteed.

Clyburn sees Selma as the nexus of the 1960s movement for voting rights, at a time when there currently are efforts to scale back those rights.

“The Voting Rights Act of 1965 became a reality in August of 1965 because of what happened on March 7th of 1965,” Clyburn said.

“We are at an inflection point in this country,” he added. “And hopefully this year’s march will allow people to take stock of where we are.”

Clyburn said he hopes the weekend in Alabama would bring energy and unity to the civil rights movement, as well as benefit the city of Selma.

“We need to do something to develop the waterfront, we need to do something that brings the industry back to Selma,” Clyburn said. “We got to do something to make up for them having lost that military installation down there that provided all the jobs. All that goes away, there’s nothing to keep young people engaged in developing their communities.”

___

Associated Press reporters Terry Spencer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Stephen Groves in Washington, D.C.; and Jeff Martin in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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