What Brings President Obama, George W. Bush to Alabama 50 Years After 'The Outrage of Selma'?

Now the war is not over / Victory isn't won / And we'll fight on to the finish / Then when it's all done / We'll cry glory, oh glory / We'll cry glory, oh glory

--"Glory," by John Legend and Common, from the Academy Award-nominated film "Selma"


Fifty years ago, the soundtrack of screams from beaten and bruised demonstrators amid the stench and sting of eye-burning tear gas resounded far beyond the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

Televised images of the brutality were woven into the political, moral, and social fabric of a country on the brink of war--at home and abroad.

The events in Selma led to passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. Many of the gains of that legislation are now being lost, however, some civil rights leaders believe.

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, a decision considered by many to be a setback for the election process. This is just one example why this year's march may be one of the most important in five decades, said State Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma.

"The right to vote is being challenged at every turn," he said. "From voter photo ID, proof of citizenship to register, and reduction in voting and voter registration days, Americans are losing the right to vote that so many people sacrificed their lives and blood to secure."

U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., a Selma native and the first black woman elected to Congress from Alabama, said many "modern-day barriers" to voting remain.

Victory, they say, hasn't been won. And this week's 50th anniversary commemoration of the Selma to Montgomery march - with President Obama and former president George W. Bush scheduled to attend - couldn't come at a more critical time for voting rights.


On Saturday, March 7, Obama and Bush are among dozens of dignitaries--including a large, bipartisan congressional delegation--who will visit Selma to commemorate the march.

On Sunday, March 8, organizers will re-enact the full 54-mile march, beginning in Selma with the commemoration of Bloody Sunday and concluding on Friday, March 13, with an 11 a.m. event on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery.


Rev. F. D. Reese, pastor of Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church in Selma, said the commemoration is needed because "sometimes it seems that America has learned very little."

"Selma then represented the kind of commitment that all people should have the right to participate in the political process that governs their lives, not based on the color of their skin but the content of their character," said Reese, who was president of the Dallas County Voters League in 1965.

Selma Mayor George Evans said the remembrance is more than a photo op and a gathering for politicians.

"The purpose and meaning 50 years ago was the right to vote and for certain freedoms," he said. "The critical piece is not to be marching just to be marching ... but to send a strong message to all of our people and to the world that it is important that we vote and have the right to vote and keep the right to vote."


The events of March 7, 1965--broadcast on television at the time and dramatized in theAcademy Award-nominated film "Selma," released last year--are forever etched into the collective consciousness of America.

On that day, marchers who planned to walk 54 miles to Montgomery to protest the denial of voting rights for blacks were confronted on the Edmund Pettus Bridge by a blockade of state troopers and local police armed with clubs, cattle prods, and tear gas.

A second march, led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on March 9, turned back to avoid facing additional violence at the hands of authorities. A third march, which began on March 21 under the watchful eye of federal officials, was successful.

That August, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Recalling ''the outrage of Selma,'' President Johnson called the right to vote ''the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men."

Said Congresswoman Sewell, "Let's face it: The Voting Rights Act would not have passed had America not come face to face with its own humanity--or, rather, inhumanity--on Bloody Sunday. It was that event that forced the hand of Southerners and Northerners--all Americans--to rise up and do something about it, legislatively."