This weekend marks the 56th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the peaceful march of more than 500 demonstrators who walked from Selma to Montgomery across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where they were met with brutal violence by Alabama state troopers on March 7, 1965.
For over a decade, the Bridge Crossing Jubilee has recognized this day and the fight for voting rights with a weekend-long commemoration and a march across the bridge. The event normally brings out 50,000 people each year. This year is very different, however. In 2020, four civil rights icons died: Congressman John Lewis, who helped lead the march, Southern Christian Leadership Conference founder Joseph Lowery, minister and Martin Luther King Jr. confidant C.T. Vivian and attorney Bruce Boynton. This year’s celebration, which is virtual due to COVID-19, will honor them.
Drew Glover, who is the coordinator of this year’s Selma Jubilee, told HuffPost that it was significant to still find a way to host the event and honor the civil rights giants, despite the pandemic.
“The very real significance that it plays not only in the importance of commemorating the work of Congressman Lewis and the other great civil rights leaders, I think one of the main goals and roles that the Jubilee plays is this annual commemoration and reminder of the struggles that people had to experience to be able to allow us the right to vote,” he said.
Bloody Sunday was a major turning point in the civil rights movement. In Dallas County, Alabama, Black people made up more than half of the population but accounted for a mere 2% of registered voters. Activists, including Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee co-founder Bernard Lafayette, went down to Selma to register Black voters and fight for equal voting rights. When Lewis, alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and Hosea Williams, led the marchers to the bridge 56 years ago, they were met by more than 100 state troopers and deputies, some on horseback, others waving Confederate flags.
When Maj. John Cloud told them to end their peaceful protest, Williams asked to have a word with him. He refused. The protesters stood their ground and marched on. Officials clubbed, tear-gassed and beat them, some nearly to death. Dozens, including Lewis, were injured. At least 17 were hospitalized. The violence was broadcast across the country and brought attention to the brutality Black people in the South were facing and became the catalyst for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Lafayette, now 80, was 22 when he went down to fight for voting rights in Selma, a year after he had been brutally beaten during the Freedom Rides.
“No matter what happens to you, you must continue the struggle. And the reason we were able to bring about change is because we could continue to struggle. We did that stop on the bridge. We crossed the bridge, did that stop on the bridge,” Lafeyette told HuffPost of the courage it took to be a foot soldier in the movement. Though he was not at the bridge on Bloody Sunday, Lafayette worked tirelessly in the Selma marches during 1965. He helped recruit Chicago gang members to marshal the protests. He said their nonviolent strategies made progress, but the fight continues.
In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down key parts of the Voting Rights Act that prevented states from approving discriminatory voting practices. For nearly a decade, marginalized groups’ voting rights have been under attack.
“I think we must appreciate the fact that the battle is not over while we have accomplished some things. We’ve also had some setbacks,” Lafayette said. “We could not have anticipated that the Voting Rights Act would be under attack.”
Glover said today’s voter suppression, police brutality and systemic oppression are akin to what activists were fighting against in 1965.
“One of the main reasons we felt it was still important to have the event this year, even transitioning it virtually because of the pandemic, is the urgency of making sure that this history and kind of chronicled experience of these individuals, that were up against all the odds and used nonviolent social change tactics to make an impact, it’s important that we lift up that history and incorporate it into the conversation across generations,” Glover said.
This year’s events began Friday and end Sunday. The theme this year is “Beyond the Bridge: People Power, Political Power, Economic Power” and it will include panels, a symposium for social change, workshops on effective organizing, virtual concerts and a Sunday morning church service with a drive across the bridge and then the laying of a wreath. Folks at home will be able to participate with a virtual bridge crossing presentation.
Throughout the weekend, organizers, activists and other attendees will honor the lives and memory of Lewis, Vivian, Lowery and Boynton.
Tafeni L. English, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Memorial Center, said it shouldn’t be lost on participants that the same voting rights those hundreds of protesters fought for in 1965 are at stake today.
“I love that the Jubilee this year is being very intentional in the language of hosting this event in the spirit of John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, Bruce Boynton and so many others,” she told HuffPost. “And I think what is really key is because, even after the victories won in the Deep South with regard to mobilizing voters, at the core of that, we’re still seeing where there has been an introduction of the bills that have been introduced that are aimed at creating more barriers to voting. Suppressing the right to vote.”
Lafayette, who was also Lewis’s former roommate, said that it is important for today’s activists to implement strategy and be organized. He tipped his hat to the women leading the movement today, noting that more Black women stepping forth as leaders is a needed thing. (“You ain’t gonna find a better organizer than women,” he said.)
Lafayette said that the best way people can honor the legacies of Lewis, Vivian, Lowery, Boynton and other activists who are no longer living is to make sure the work that has been done stays in place. He also said that he believes the bridge, which is still named after a Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader, should be renamed for Lewis, an effort that The John Lewis Bridge Project and others have been working toward.
English recalled 2020’s bridge crossing, which was Lewis’s final crossing. She said they didn’t open the Civil Rights Memorial Center often but made an exception for Lewis and others to walk in this time. She said his words left an indelible mark on her.
“I’ll never forget what he said was, ‘It is so important that we continue to show up because we never know when it will be our last time.’”