MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — The 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march is coming up amid increasing threats to voting rights, activists say, and they plan to use the commemoration to energize people to address those challenges.
"The right to vote is the right that protects all other rights. That makes it the most important right," State Sen. Hank Sanders of Selma said at a news conference Wednesday with other organizers of the Bridge Crossing Jubilee.
The Selma-to-Montgomery march, punctuated by police violence against protesters, prompted to Congress to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which opened Southern polling places to millions of blacks and ended all-white governments.
"Were it not for blood, sweat and tears shed in yesteryear, it would not be possible for us to stand here today as elected officials," Tuskegee Mayor Johnny Ford said.
Each year, Selma holds the Bridge Crossing Jubilee to remember law enforcement beating participants at the start of the march on Selma's Edmund Pettus bridge, an event known as "Bloody Sunday," and then the completion of the 50-mile march under federal protection.
Events in Selma will start March 5 and culminate with a commemorative march across the bridge on March 8. The march to Montgomery will be recreated March 9-13, concluding with a rally at the state Capitol.
Big anniversaries in the past have drawn current and former presidents and presidential candidates. Sanders expects that to happen for the 50th anniversary. He predicted next year's crowd will be the largest since 1965.
Sanders and other elected officials involved in the planning 50th anniversary said they want to celebrate what was achieved and teach young people more about the importance of voting.
But they also hope it will energize people to peacefully challenge what they see as increasing threats to voting, including a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year striking part of the Voting Rights Act and states enacting laws to limit early voting, require voters to show photo IDs at the polls and pack blacks into overwhelmingly black election districts, lessening their influence in other districts.
The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments Nov. 12 in a challenge the Legislative Black Caucus and Alabama Democratic Conference filed against Alabama's legislative districts.
Charles Steele, national president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, recently returned from speaking engagements in Germany. He said the 1965 march has inspired people in other countries seeking to gain new rights, and recent changes in American voting laws are getting international attention again.
"The whole world is watching this," he said.