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Civil Rights Activists Mark 40 Years Since 'Bloody Sunday'

Americans are looking back 40 years to one of the most significant moments in America's civil rights movement. On March 7, 1965, a peaceful protest in Alabama was met with violence - but ultimately advanced the cause for equal rights.

About 600 people, most of them African-Americans, had gathered in the town of Selma - planning to march to Montgomery, the state capital. To leave Selma, they had to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. But, when the protesters arrived there, state troopers blocked their way and told them to turn back. When they refused to give up their march, the officers attacked them.

"They were mercilessly and gratuitously beaten and bludgeoned by the Alabama state troopers," recalled Broadway director Kenny Leon at a recent event in Atlanta looking back on the march. "An organization sworn to serve and protect attacked the unarmed men and women without cause or compunction. The scenes of violence were shown around the world, and the events were dubbed Bloody Sunday."

It became a turning point for the cause of equal rights. President Lyndon Johnson called it an American tragedy and promised justice. Courts overturned their ban on the march. And, later that month, civil rights figures including Martin Luther King, Jr. led a new march straight through to the state capitol.

"This time," said Mr. Leon, "they were served and protected by the federal troops, and they were joined by more than 25,000 blacks and whites from all over the country executing one of the most successful demonstrations in American history."

The events helped lead to the passage that year of the Voting Rights Act, which struck down many of the laws that local officials had used to keep blacks from voting. But those who were at Bloody Sunday could never have known the effect their actions would have.

John Lewis was 25 when he helped lead the march. As the troopers came toward him, he kneeled to pray, and was attacked and left bleeding from the head. Now a U.S. Congressman from Atlanta, he compares that day -- and other moments in the civil rights struggle -- to being stuck inside a small home in the middle of a huge storm.

"We were little children walking with the wind but we never left the house," he told the audience in Atlanta. "That's what the civil rights movement was all about -- trying to hold the American house together. When we were marching on Washington, marching in Birmingham, marching from Selma to Montgomery, marching in Jackson or Nashville… we were trying to hold the house together."

At the Atlanta ceremony, Coretta Scott King, Reverend King's widow, told Congressman Lewis that his actions during the march 40 years earlier -- and the images of him being beaten -- helped show the world what peaceful protest can achieve. "Your luminous example of non-violence in word and deed," she said, "provides a source of hope and inspiration for all."

Some of the activists in Atlanta were only children at the time of Bloody Sunday. But they, too, said that day and the events it triggered transformed the country. Barack Obama, the only African American currently in the U.S. Senate, praised those who took part in the protest for helping to create a nation in which he could become a Senator. "They were willing to spend sleepless nights in lonely jail cells, endure the searing pain of the billy club, the dogs, the hoses, face down death," he said, "in order that all of us could share equally in the joys and bounties of this life."

Singer and activist Harry Belafonte, who performed on the steps of the Alabama capitol when the marchers finally made it there in 1965, worries that today's young people haven't learned the lessons of the civil rights movement. He said in Atlanta that he doesn't see the younger generation launching organized efforts to solve the problems that persist today across America.

"Perhaps what happened in the way in which our present generations are greeting the responsibilities of the day is that somewhere we, the elders, faltered in the way in which we passed on the baton," said Mr. Belafonte. "Somewhere our youth participated only in the victories of our struggle. They did not inherit the struggle itself and the moral responsibility for what they had to do."

Representative Lewis said the nation has come a long way in 40 years. But, he said, there is still a great distance to go.