Thousands commemorate historic Selma, Ala., civil rights march

Reuters News
Posted: Mar 25, 2015 12:42 PM

By Jonathan Kaminsky

(Reuters) - Thousands of people gathered at the Alabama state capitol in Montgomery on Wednesday to mark the culmination 50 years ago of a march beginning in Selma and led by Martin Luther King Jr. that proved pivotal in the U.S. civil rights movement.

The daughters of King, who led the original march, and former Alabama Governor George Wallace, then a champion of segregation, spoke from the capitol steps to commemorate the roughly 50-mile trek that helped bring about the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.

"Fifty years ago it was malice that would not allow daddy to speak from the steps of this capitol," Bernice King, said, referring to her father, who had spoken instead from a flatbed truck. "Today I stand where he could not stand to synthesize our past with our present."

King, who recited the "How Long, Not Long" speech her father gave 50 years earlier, shared an embrace with Peggy Wallace Kennedy, whose father apologized in his later years for his segregationist views.

Addressing the crowd, Kennedy urged more people to take advantage of their right to vote.

The five-day march to Montgomery, which concluded on March 25, 1965, occurred after two aborted attempts, the first of which ended when police beat peaceful demonstrators with clubs and doused them with tear gas in Selma in what became known as "Bloody Sunday.

The events on Wednesday, which included a speech by Alabama Governor Robert Bentley, were the finale of a monthlong celebration of the marches, which included President Barack Obama visiting Selma to mark Bloody Sunday.

The anniversary comes at a time of renewed focus on racial disparities in the United States and anger over the treatment of black citizens, among them 18-year-old Michael Brown, whose killing by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, last year sparked widespread protests.

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It also comes nearly two years after the U.S. Supreme Court gutted a key part of the Voting Rights Act governing the formula that decides which states and locales with a history of racial discrimination need federal approval to change voting laws.

Several speakers on Wednesday called for the passage of legislation to strengthen voting rights.

(Reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky in New Orleans; Editing by Lisa Lambert and Bill Trott)