President Joe Biden arrived in Alabama to pay tribute to ‘Bloody Sunday’ and joined thousands for the commemoration of the civil rights movement that led to the passing of historic voting rights 60 years ago.
The visit to Selma is also an opportunity for Biden to speak directly with the current generation of civil rights activists. Many feel dejected that Biden failed to fulfill a campaign promise to strengthen voting rights and are eager for his administration to keep the spotlight on the issue.
Biden used his remarks to emphasize the importance of remembering “Bloody Sunday” so that history cannot be erased, as he sought to demonstrate that the fight for voting rights remains an integral part of economic justice and civil rights for black Americans, said White House officials.
This year’s commemoration comes as the historic town of about 18,000 is still reeling after the aftermath of an EF-2 tornado in January that destroyed or damaged thousands of properties in and around Selma. The scars of that storm are still visible.
Blocks from the podium where Biden was to speak were houses that were crumbling or roofless. Orange spray paint marked beyond salvageable buildings with instructions to ‘tear down’.
President Joe Biden arrived in Alabama to pay tribute to ‘Bloody Sunday’ heroes
Attendees listen to speakers at an event commemorating the 58th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” a milestone of the civil rights movement, on Sunday in Selma, Alabama
US President Joe Biden reacts as Faya Rose Toure, founder of the Selma Jubilee Committee, speaks at the commemoration of the 58th anniversary of ‘Bloody Sunday,’ when state troopers crack down on peaceful suffrage protesters marching against discrimination, at Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma
Prior to Biden’s visit, Rev. William Barber II, a co-chair of Poor People’s Campaign, and six other activists wrote to Biden and members of Congress expressing frustration at the lack of progress on voting rights legislation. They urged Washington politicians who visited Selma not to tarnish the memories of the late civil rights activists John Lewis, Hosea Williams and others with hollow clichés.
“We say to President Biden, let’s bring this to America as a moral issue, and let’s show how it affects everyone,” Barber said in an interview. “When voting rights were passed after Selma, it didn’t just help black people. It helped America itself. We need the president to rephrase this: when you block voting rights, you don’t just hurt black people. You’re hurting America itself.”
Few moments have been more enduringly significant to the civil rights movement than what happened on March 7, 1965, in Selma and in the weeks that followed.
Some 600 peaceful protesters led by Lewis and Williams had gathered that day, just weeks after a young black man, Jimmie Lee Jackson, was fatally shot by an Alabama soldier.
President Joe Biden speaks at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on Sunday
President Joe Biden greets Rev. Jesse Jackson in Selma, Alabama
Biden was seen punching the air with a closed fist as he cheered the loudspeakers
Crowds gathered to hear Biden speak at the 58th anniversary commemoration
Lewis, who would later serve in the U.S. House representing Georgia, and the others were brutally beaten by Alabama troopers and sheriff’s deputies as they attempted to cross Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge at the start of what was a 54-mile walk. miles to the state capitol in Montgomery as part of a larger effort to register black voters in the South
The images of police brutality sparked outrage across the country. Days later, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. what became known as the “Turnaround Tuesday” march, in which protesters approached a police wall near the bridge and prayed before turning back.
President Lyndon B. Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act of 1965 eight days after “Bloody Sunday,” calling Selma one of those rare moments in American history where “history and destiny meet all at once.”
On March 21, King began a third march, under federal protection, which grew by the thousands by the time they reached the capital. Five months later, Johnson signed the bill into law.
US President Joe Biden hugs Faya Rose Toure, founder of the Selma Jubilee Committee
Reverend Jesse Jackson, seated, smiles for a photo after arriving to hear Biden speak at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama
Thousands of people filled the streets to commemorate the civil rights movement that led to the adoption of historic voting rights 60 years ago
Several hundred lined up in downtown Selma well before Biden showed up to secure a spot
President Joe Biden claps as Selma Jubilee Committee founder Faya Rose Toure speaks
As a candidate in 2020, Biden pledged to pursue sweeping legislation to strengthen voting rights protections. His 2021 legislation, called the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, included provisions to limit partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts, remove barriers to voting, and bring transparency to a campaign finance system that allows wealthy donors to anonymously fund political causes.
It passed the then Democrat-controlled House, but failed to garner the 60 votes needed to gain passage in the Senate. With Republicans now in control of the House, such legislation is highly unlikely to pass.
‘Everything takes time. And it could take him another term to actually accomplish all the things he wants to do for the nation,” said Harriett Thomas, 76, who was a student when she left for the march that would become known as “Bloody Sunday.” ‘
Several hundred lined up in downtown Selma well before Biden’s appearance, including Delores Gresham, 65, a retired health worker from Birmingham. She arrived four hours early and grabbed a front row seat so her grandchildren could hear the president and see the memorial.
“I want them to know what happened here,” she said.
Two years ago, on the anniversary, Biden issued an executive order directing federal agencies to expand access to voter registration, calling on agency heads to come up with plans to release federal employees to vote or volunteer act as impartial pollsters, and more.
Biden prays with Reverend William Barber at Sunday’s memorial service
Reverend Al Sharpton also attended the ceremony in Selma, Alabama
Reverend Al Sharpton speaks with Joe Biden prior to the ceremony
Martin Luther King III and Reverend Jesse Jackson are pictured in their seats during the ceremony
But many federal agencies are falling behind in meeting the vote registration provision of Biden’s order, according to a report released Thursday by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. The group says fully implementing the registration efforts outlined in the order would mean an additional 3.5 million voter registration applications annually.
Selma officials hope Biden will also address the January tornado that devastated the city and exposed the poverty that has persisted in Selma for decades.
Biden approved a disaster declaration and agreed to provide additional assistance in clearing and removing debris, a cost that Mayor James Perkins said the small town could not afford on its own.
“I understand that other communities of our size and demographics have similar challenges…but I don’t think anyone can claim what Selma has done for this country and the contributions we have made to this country,” he said.