Thousands of people crowded an Alabama bridge Sunday to commemorate a bloody confrontation 50 years ago between police and peaceful protesters that helped bring about the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
A day after President Barack Obama walked atop the Edmund Pettus Bridge, many jammed shoulder to shoulder, many unable to move, as they recalled the civil-rights struggle.
Police said at least 15,000 to 20,000 people had joined the crush on and around the small bridge.
Earlier Sunday, Selma officials paid tribute to the late President Lyndon B. Johnson for the Voting Rights Act. The attack on demonstrators preceded a Selma-to-Montgomery march, which occurred two weeks later in 1965. Both helped build momentum for congressional approval of the Voting Rights Act that year.
Luci Baines Johnson accepted the award on behalf of her father.
“You remember how deeply Daddy cared about social justice and how hard he worked to make it happen,” she told a crowd Sunday morning.
She said what happened in Selma changed the world, adding that she witnessed the painful injustice of segregation as a child.
William Baldwin, 69, of Montgomery brought his two grandsons, ages 11 and 15, to the bridge Sunday so they could grasp the importance of the march he took part in a half-century earlier.
“They’re going to take this struggle on and we have to understand the price that was paid for them to have what they have now,” Baldwin said.
Some sang hymns and others held signs, such as “Black lives matter, all lives matter.” The crowd was so large that many appeared barely able to move as they peacefully sought to make their way across.
On March 7, 1965, police beat and tear-gassed marchers at the foot of the bridge in Selma in a spasm of violence that shocked the nation.
An anniversary march from Selma to Montgomery is set to begin this morning and culminate with a rally at the Alabama Capitol on Friday.
On Saturday, Obama joined civil-rights leaders and others at the bridge and talked about progress in race relations since the 1960s.
“We just need to open our eyes, and ears, and hearts, to know that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us,” Obama said.
Bishop Dennis Proctor of the Alabama-Florida Episcopal District said his group brought five buses to the anniversary commemoration. But he told members not to come to Selma if they couldn’t commit to fighting to restore protections in the Voting Rights Act that were recently eliminated.
In 2013, the U.S Supreme Court struck down section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which required states with a history of minority voter suppression to get permission from the Justice Department before changing voting laws.
Groups traveled to Selma from across the nation, including five busloads from Nashville.
Gloria Haugabook McKissack, a retired college history teacher who participated in lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville, was the main organizer of the trip from Nashville.
“It just grew as people began to hear that we were going to make this journey,” McKissack said.