Biden pays tribute to civil rights activists in Selma on ‘Bloody Sunday’ anniversary
President Joe Biden used the history Selma’s ‘Bloody Sunday’ to recommit to a cornerstone of democracy and promising to readdress voting rights in the country.
Harking back to a seminal moment from the civil rights movement, Biden’s pledge comes as he has so far been unable to push enhanced voting protections through Congress, while a conservative Supreme Court has undermined a landmark voting law.
‘Selma is a reckoning. The right to vote … to have your vote counted is the threshold of democracy and liberty. With it anything’s possible,’ Biden told a crowd of more than 1,000 people seated on one side of the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge, named for a reputed Ku Klux Klan leader.
‘This fundamental right remains under assault. The conservative Supreme Court has gutted the Voting Rights Act over the years. Since the 2020 election, a wave of states and dozens and dozens of anti-voting laws fueled by the `Big Lie’ and the election deniers now elected to office,’ he said.
The visit to Selma was an opportunity for Biden to speak directly to the current generation of civil rights activists. Many feel dejected because Biden has been unable to make good on a campaign pledge to bolster voting rights and are eager to see his administration keep the issue in the spotlight.
Biden used his remarks to emphasize the importance of commemorating ‘Bloody Sunday’ so that history cannot be erased, while trying to make the case that the fight for voting rights remains integral to economic justice and civil rights for Black Americans, White House officials said.
This year’s commemoration comes as the historic city of roughly 18,000 is still digging out from the aftermath of a January EF-2 tornado that destroyed or damaged thousands of properties in and around Selma. The scars of that storm are still evident.
President Joe Biden arrived in Alabama to pay tribute to the heroes of ‘Bloody Sunday’
Attendees listen to speakers during an event to commemorate the 58th anniversary of ‘Bloody Sunday,’ a landmark event of the civil rights movement, on Sunday, in Selma, Alabama
U.S. 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 beat peaceful voting rights protesters who were marching against discrimination, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma
Blocks from the stage where Biden was to speak were houses that sat crumbled or without roofs. Orange spray paint marked buildings beyond salvage with instructions to ‘tear down.’
‘We remain Selma strong,’ Mayor James Perkins said, adding that ‘we will build back better.’ He thanked Biden for approving a disaster declaration that helped the small city with the cost of debris cleanup and removal.
Before Biden’s visit, the Rev. William Barber II, a co-chair of Poor People’s Campaign, and six other activists wrote Biden and members of Congress to express their frustration with the lack of progress on voting rights legislation.
They urged Washington politicians visiting Selma not to sully the memories of the late civil rights activists John Lewis, Hosea Williams and others with empty platitudes.
‘We’re saying to President Biden, let’s frame this to America as a moral issue, and let’s show how it effects everybody,’ Barber said in an interview.
‘When voting rights passed after Selma, it didn’t just help Black people. It helped America itself. We need the president to reframe this: When you block voting rights, you’re not just hurting black people. You’re hurting America itself.’
Few moments have had as lasting importance to the civil rights movement as what happened on March 7, 1965, in Selma and in the weeks that followed.
Some 600 peaceful demonstrators led by Lewis and Williams had gathered that day, just weeks after the fatal shooting of a young black man, Jimmie Lee Jackson, by an Alabama trooper.
‘Selma is a reckoning. The right to vote … to have your vote counted is the threshold of democracy and liberty. With it anything’s possible,’ Biden told a crowd of more than 1,000 people
President Joe Biden walks across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma to commemorate Bloody Sunday
President Joe Biden talks with Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., center, and the Rev. Al Sharpton after walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, on Sunday. Sharpton holds hands with the Rev. Jesse Jackson at right
President Joe Biden speaks near the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on Sunday
Civil rights marchers crossing the Alabama river on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma as they make their way to the state Capitol of Montgomery
Martin Luther King Jr and civil rights marchers are pictured crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge
Tear gas fills the air as state troopers, ordered by then-Alabama Governor George Wallace, break up a march at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965, on what became known as Bloody Sunday
An Alabama state trooper swings a club at John Lewis, right foreground, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, to break up the civil rights voting march in Selma in March 1965
Sunday marked the 58th anniversary of the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River in Selma. Pictured is the original march
President Joe Biden greets the Reverend Jesse Jackson in Selma, Alabama
Biden could be seen punching the air with a closed fist as he cheered the speakers
Crowds gathered to hear Biden speak at the 58th anniversary commemoration
U.S. President Joe Biden, Reverend Jesse Jackson, Reverend Al Sharpton and U.S. Representative Terri Sewell (D-AL), participate in a commemorative march
Biden used his remarks to emphasize the importance of commemorating ‘Bloody Sunday’ so that history cannot be erased
U.S. President Joe Biden, Reverend Jesse Jackson, Reverend Al Sharpton and U.S. Representative Terri Sewell (D-AL), participate in a commemorative march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge for the 58th anniversary of ‘Bloody Sunday’
President Joe Biden walks across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. With Biden is Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson
President Joe Biden bows his head during a prayer after walking across the bridge
The march remembers the day when state troopers beat peaceful voting rights protesters who were marching across the bridge, in Selma, Alabama
U.S. President Joe Biden, Reverend Al Sharpton and U.S. Representative Terri Sewell (D-AL), participate in the commemoration of the 58th anniversary of ‘Bloody Sunday’
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 tried to cross Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge at the start of what was supposed to be a 54-mile walk to the state capital in Montgomery as part of a larger effort to register black voters in the South.
‘On this bridge, blood was given to help redeem the soul of America,’ Biden said.
The images of the police violence sparked outrage across the country. Days later, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. led what became known as the ‘Turnaround Tuesday’ march, in which marchers approached a wall of police at 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 those rare moments in American history where ‘history and fate meet at a single time.’
On March 21, King began a third march, under federal protection, that grew by thousands by the time they arrived at the state capital. Five months later, Johnson signed the bill into law.
U.S. President Joe Biden embraces Faya Rose Toure, Founder of the Selma Jubilee Committee
The Rev. 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 packed the streets for the commemoration of the civil rights movement that led to passage of landmark voting rights 60 years ago
Several hundred lined up in downtown Selma well before Biden’s appearance in oder to grabs a spot
President Joe Biden claps as Faya Rose Toure, Founder of the Selma Jubilee Committee speaks
As a candidate in 2020, Biden promised to pursue sweeping legislation to bolster protection of voting rights. His 2021 legislation, named the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, included provisions to restrict partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts, strike down hurdles to voting and bring transparency to a campaign finance system that allows wealthy donors to bankroll political causes anonymously.
It passed the then-Democratic-controlled House, but failed to draw the 60 votes needed to win passage in the Senate. With Republicans now in control of the House, passage of such legislation is highly unlikely.
‘We know we must get the votes in Congress,’ Biden said, but there seems no viable path right now.
‘Everything takes time. And it might take him another term to actually accomplish all the things that he wants to do for the nation,’ said Harriett Thomas, 76, who was a college student when she set off on 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 care worker from Birmingham. She was there four hours early, grabbing a front-row spot so her grandchildren could hear the president and see the commemoration.
‘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, called on the heads of agencies to come up with plans to give federal employees time off to vote or volunteer as nonpartisan poll workers, and more.
Biden prays with Rev. William Barber at Sunday’s commemoration
Reverend Al Sharpton was also there at the ceremony in Selma, Alabama
Reverend Al Sharpton speaks to Joe Biden prior to the ceremony
Martin Luther King III and Reverend Jesse Jackson are pictured in their seats at the ceremony
But many federal agencies are lagging in meeting the voting registration provision of Biden’s order, according to a report published Thursday by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
The group says fully implementing registration efforts laid out 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 laid bare issues of poverty that have persisted in Selma for decades.
Biden approved a disaster declaration and agreed to provide extra help for debris cleanup and removal, a cost that Mayor James Perkins said the small city could not afford on its own.
‘I understand other communities our size and our demographics have similar challenges … but I don´t think anyone can claim what Selma has done for this nation and the contributions that we made to this nation,’ he said.