Under a partly cloudy sky, amid the beat of drums and protest songs that filled the air, Brenda McCrae moved among the surging, massive crowd across the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge during this year's Selma Bridge Crossing Jubilee to complete the bookend of a journey that started, for her, in 1963 on the National Mall in Washington.
"I was in D.C. when (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) made the 'I Have a Dream' speech. This was on my bucket list, and I've done it," she told VOA as the finished the March 1 bridge crossing event. "It's really important."
On March 7, 1965, hundreds of voting rights demonstrators at the same location in Selma fell victim to tear gas and brutal beatings as Alabama law enforcement officers descended on the peaceful civil rights march.
The "Bloody Sunday" incident spurred larger marches from Selma to Montgomery later that month led by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., which culminated in the 1965 Voting Rights Act signed by U.S. President Lyndon Johnson.
But now, as primary elections occur across the country, those gathered in Selma to commemorate the bridge crossing 55 years ago say the fight for voting rights marches on.
"People are being suppressed," said McCrae. "People are being taken off the voting registration. It's just not right. We need to do something to fix it."
Bob Smith, who marched from Selma to Montgomery following Bloody Sunday, told VOA: "Places where you could go and register to vote have closed. Voting is free, but you have to have a piece of paper to show that you are a citizen of the country and where you were born."
He said just proving U.S. citizenship is a difficult task for many like him who were born in the South.
"Senior citizens, many of us don't have any ID. We don't even know where we were born. There's no record of where we were born because we were born at home," he said.
"They tried to keep me from voting a few years ago, and I was the state senator here in Dallas county," said retired Alabama Sen. Hank Sanders. "I went there, and my name had disappeared off the rolls, and they said, 'Well, you must not have voted.' And I said, 'I know I voted, because I voted for myself!'"
Sanders was among the protesters who marched from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.
"Dr. King, I remember him clearly him saying, 'How long?' And we in the crowd would yell back, 'Not long!' Here we are 55 years later, still struggling to maintain, to expand and to fully exercise the right to vote," Sanders said.
Today, as an organizer of the annual Selma Bridge Crossing Jubilee, Sanders hopes the event raises awareness of present-day voting rights issues, and encourages everyone to exercise the hard-fought right to cast a ballot.
"The message of this event is that it's important to know how you struggled," Sanders said. "It's important to know how you overcame. It's important to know where you are going. And it's also important to know where all of this is in relationship to the present. The people who take it for granted are generally the people who don't vote."
That message is one of the reasons why, ailing and frail under treatment for pancreatic cancer, one of the leaders of the original march in Selma made a surprise appearance on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Georgia Congressman John Lewis was direct in his appeal to the massive crowd, among them Democratic presidential hopefuls Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who have ended their presidential runs.
"We must go out and vote like we never, ever voted before!" Lewis exclaimed to rousing cheers from those within earshot of his message.
Bloomberg, who has come under fire from minority communities for policing practices under his leadership in New York City, spoke to Voice of America before addressing the audience at a pre-march church service at the historic Brown A.M.E. Chapel in Selma, where the 1965 marches began.
"I've never been here before," he explained. "I've read about Selma over the years."
This was an opportunity to come, Bloomberg said, not only because he was invited but also to make sure what happened in Selma in 1965 "doesn't happen again. The same thing as 9/11. You can grieve, but you need to make sure this is the last time."
For 9-year-old Darrell Walker, the events in Selma aren't just a history lesson, or a festival, or a campaign stop. It's his home.
"I marched across the bridge, and it was very fun to see all the candidates like (former Vice President) Joe Biden and Mike Bloomberg," he said.
While he is too young to vote, Walker aspires to stand on the shoulders of those who fought for civil rights that makes his dreams a possibility today.
"I would like to be a president one day to help out my community, and help out the neighborhoods that are struggling and stuff," he said.
It's a struggle Walker sees firsthand. While massive crowds turn out for the jubilee, since Bloody Sunday, Selma has lost population.
Over 40% of those who still reside here live in poverty. The city and surrounding county also have high unemployment and higher-than-average crime rates, which is why many look beyond access to voting and search for leaders and presidential candidates who can help bring change to Selma and similar communities.