Fifty years have passed since Bloody Sunday, that seminal event in United States civil-rights history when African-Americans and their allies attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., demanding the right to vote.
As soon as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, they were violently attacked by the Alabama State Police, beaten with nightsticks and electric cattle prods, set upon by police dogs and tear-gassed. They were chased off the bridge, all the way back to Selma’s Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, where the march began. News and images of the extreme and unprovoked police violence, in contrast to the conduct of the 600 marchers, who practiced disciplined nonviolence, spread across the globe. Within months, President Lyndon Johnson would sign the 1965 Voting Rights Act, responding to the public outrage and to the pressure applied by a skillfully organized mass movement.
The march that would become known as Bloody Sunday was organized in response to a killing by the police of a young man. That history, and how it relates to today, was recounted last Sunday in historic Brown Chapel. The sanctuary was filled to capacity with civil-rights icons, Obama administration Cabinet secretaries and members of Congress.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder spoke, making a connection to the spate of high-profile police killings of unarmed young black men today. This commemoration happened just days after the Justice Department released its scathing report on systemic racism in the police departments of Ferguson, Mo., and surrounding municipalities.
“Spurred by the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson, an unarmed young black male,” Holder said from the podium. He paused and then repeated: “an unarmed young black male.” And then again: “an unarmed young black male.” He intoned that phrase three times, looking out over a crowd that included his own teenage son, Eric Holder III, as well as his probable successor, Loretta Lynch, who will be the first African-American woman to be attorney general (if and when the Senate confirms her nomination).
“An earlier movement began, and citizens began a march from Selma to Montgomery, across a bridge that was named for a former Alabama senator, Confederate general and grand wizard in the Ku Klux Klan.” He was talking about Edmund Pettus.
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