President Joe Biden arrived in Alabama to pay tribute to the heroes of "Bloody Sunday," joining thousands for the annual commemoration of the seminal moment in the civil rights movement that led to passage of landmark voting rights legislation nearly 60 years ago.
The visit to Selma also is 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 intends to use 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. 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."
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.
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
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.
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.
"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.
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.