With an escort of Alabama state troopers, sheriff's deputies and city police leading the way, nearly 3,000 civil rights marchers walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge today in exuberant commemoration of "Bloody Sunday" here 20 years ago.
It was a remarkable blend of past and present. Except for the marchers, the downtown streets were largely deserted. There is still a black Selma and a white Selma, and white Selma stayed home.
But at Brown Chapel AME Church, where it all started, Joe Smitherman, the city's white mayor who also held that office in 1965, showed up to acknowledge the wrongs done in the past and to present keys to the city to the leaders of today's march, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
The mayor, first elected in 1964, shared a green hymnal with Jackson for a spirited rendition of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic".
What happened here on Sunday, March 7, 1965, after weeks of futile black efforts to register to vote, was a display of official brutality that electrified the nation and served as a turning point for the civil rights movement.
Under orders from then and now Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace to stop the march, helmeted state troopers and mounted deputies tore into a crowd of about 600 on the Pettus Bridge with bullwhips, tear gas and clubs. A posse on horseback organized by Sheriff Jim Clark chased stragglers back toward Brown Chapel.
Seventeen marchers were taken to hospitals with bone fractures and other serious injuries. About 70 others were treated for cuts, bruises and the effects of tear gas.
The contrasts with today were striking. Then the skies were gray and dour, and a stiff March wind stirred up the Alabama River beneath the bridge. This afternoon it was bright and balmy with temperatures in the mid-70s.
Then marchers were forced to walk two abreast on a narrow bridge sidewalk. Today they filled the eastbound lanes of the bridge, marching more than a dozen across.
There were still signs of tension. Blacks here are restive over the recent federal indictments of longtime civil rights leader Albert Turner, his wife and a close associate in Perry County on charges of voting fraud. The prospect of more federal indictments of black Alabamians in other counties where they have won control has added to the fears of repression.
Turner's defense lawyer J.L. Chestnut protested at a "unity breakfast" that, in Alabama's 10-county Black Belt, "black governments are under siege everywhere you look," while in white-controlled Dallas County, "the capital of vote fraud," he said, the Federal Bureau of Investigation does not appear interested.
Mayor Smitherman tried to emphasize the positive, telling the packed noonday crowd at Brown Chapel that Selma has "black elected officials, blacks on our boards," and, as a result, paved streets and other improvements in black neighborhoods.
Describing himself as "a poor redneck" from north Alabama in hand-me-down clothes, Smitherman said, "We need to cut out all of this race baiting" and concentrate on getting the federal government to pay attention to local needs.
"Washington, that's where the enemy is," Smitherman said. "We need jobs and it's going to take blacks and whites working together to get those jobs."
Black speakers reminded the mayor that unemployment is still much higher for blacks than for whites. Despite passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act after the turmoil in Selma, the SCLC's Lowery said, "everything has changed and nothing has changed."
Lowery said he was recently an honored speaker at City Hall in Birmingham, where 20 years ago Police Commissioner Bull Connor "picked us up and put us in jail and threw away the key." In that sense, he said, "everything has changed."
By contrast, Lowery said, 20 years ago, "we had a president with a Texas drawl" who joined blacks in saying "We Shall Overcome." Today, he continued, "we have a president with a Justice Department investigating" black leaders all over west Alabama. In that sense, he said, "nothing has changed."
Jackson, introduced at one point as "black America's president," roused his audiences with recollections of how he had been galvanized by the 1965 violence at the bridge and left his studies at Chicago Theological Seminary to come to Selma the next morning.
The late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., meanwhile, had flown in from Atlanta for an ultimately successful march on Montgomery two weeks later.
"We must not remove ancient landmarks, lest we forget," Jackson said. "This is just a 20-year point. It took Moses 40 years. So we've got a long way to go . . . . We're not just here to talk about who got beat in 1965. We're here to talk about the beatings taking place today . . . ."
For the most part, however, the marchers -- young and old, faces from the past and spokesmen of the present -- were in a festive mood as they set out from the red brick church to cross the bridge on their way to Montgomery 50 miles away, where they are scheduled to arrive Thursday.
About halfway across the dour, iron bridge, short of the spot where the violence erupted, Jackson and King's widow, Coretta Scott King, knelt down and lead the front ranks of marchers in prayer.
The front row included Hosea Williams, who vainly sought "a word" with state police just before the 1965 charge; Del. Walter Fauntroy (D-D.C.); King's son, Martin Luther King III; Amelia Boynton Robinson, a local rights leader who was felled by a billy club in 1965, and John Lewis, then national chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, who suffered a fractured skull in the 1965 march.
Now an Atlanta City councilman, Lewis recalled the frustrations that preceded the 1965 march, days when hundreds of blacks would line up at the courthouse, only to be arrested or, at best, to see one out of 20 actually make it into the registrar's office during an entire day.
On March 7, 1965, Lewis recalled, state police major John Cloud halted the line, which he and Williams headed, and gave them three minutes to disperse.
"He said, 'This is an unlawful march. It will not be allowed to continue,' " Lewis remembered. Moments later, "We were beaten, tear-gassed and trampled by horses." It is a day that Lewis says he will never forget. "After Selma," he said, "the South and the American political system were never the same again."
Jackson put it another way: "Men meant it for evil," he said, "but God meant it for good."