Former United Nations ambassador Andrew Young returned to this sleepy hamlet today to complete a journey he began 31 years ago.
For a couple of minutes or so, Young walked and ran the Olympic torch a quarter-mile across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to the same point where on March 7, 1965, he and 600 black marchers protesting their lack of voting rights were beaten by a gantlet of Alabama law enforcement officials. The day has become known as "Bloody Sunday."
"You look back on occasions like this and realize you can change the world," said Young, an organizer of the 1965 march. "I hope the world gets encouragement from these Olympic Games."
Today's run -- one of 10,000 legs in the Olympic torch relay -- symbolized the long strides that Young said black Americans have made since the beatings and tear gas here. Following Young across the bridge today was a parade of public officials that illustrated how far the South has come since the days when blacks and whites were segregated by law.
Selma Mayor Joe T. Smitherman, a former segregationist who opposed the marchers in 1965, today walked next to the Rev. Frederick D. Reese, one of the leaders of the 1965 protest who was beaten and chased off the bridge.
"This is a continuation of the torch that was lit on the bridge 31 years ago, which gave the right to vote for millions of people who were denied that privilege," Reese said.
The images of Bloody Sunday produced a national outcry that hastened passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which removed the barriers to black voter registration. It opened the Southern political process to blacks.
"We couldn't have gone to Atlanta with the Olympic Games if we hadn't come through Selma a long time ago," Young said at the AME Brown Chapel, where he spoke this morning as part of the torch ceremony.
Invoking the name of his mentor, Martin Luther King Jr., Young said the venerated black hero would be "more than pleased" at the progress made between whites and blacks.
"I don't know that most of us could have imagined we would have come this far 31 years ago," said Young, framed by two flower-filled vases surrounding the pulpit from which King exhorted his followers to nonviolently oppose segregation.
The memories of that Sunday suffused the celebrations today, but the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games wanted to come to this city in central Alabama to make a statement.
"To see the scene 31 years ago, making the transition to peace and the Olympic flame is a magnificent moment," said Billy Payne, president of ACOG. "This is history for Andy. It's what he stands for."
King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference, flush with success after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, cast their gaze on Selma as the battleground for voting rights.
One hundred years after the Civil War, blacks still had made no inroads into the election process. Voter registration was kept to a minimum through a series of road-blocks such as voter literacy tests. Registration offices in Dallas County, where Selma is located, were open seven hours a month.
The result was a white population fully in charge of the electoral process. There were fewer than 300 registered blacks in Dallas County compared to 11,000 registered whites. Dallas County also had the one ingredient indispensable to peaceful demonstrations: an intolerant bully of a sheriff.
Just as Birmingham had police commissioner Eugene "Bull" Conner and his fearsome attack dogs, which so outraged a national television audience, Selma had Dallas County sheriff Jim Clark with his cattle prods and posse.
Clark was a strong segregationist who wore a button that read, "Never." He was a tall man with a short fuse and a history of confrontations with black protesters -- ideal for peaceful marchers who sought a larger-than-life foil to feed their cause.
The Pettus Bridge, with iron girders rising above and over the road it carries, crosses the Alabama River and is the eastern exit to the city on the way to the state capital of Montgomery. The bridge rises in an arc, so that a person cannot see one end of the bridge from the other.
While King was preaching at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta that overcast day in 1965, John Lewis -- now a U.S. congressman from Georgia -- and his group planned to march to the far edge of the bridge to signify their willingness to take their voting rights grievances to Montgomery.
As Lewis reached the bridge's apex, he saw a sea of blue: row upon row of state troopers, backed up by Clark's posse of deputies on horseback.
After Lewis and his followers reached the other side, the corner of his trench coat blowing gently in the breeze, a state police major bellowed over his bullhorn to turn around and cease the illegal march. In response, the marchers began to kneel. Then came the order: "Troopers advance."
The state police began to move forward toward the crowd, their hands holding the billy clubs across their chests in riot formation. Tear gas canisters were lobbed at the protesters and the march soon broke up and scattered as a posse of deputies started chasing people on horseback.
What the nation saw that night on television shocked the country and seared an ugly vision of America into the nation's consciousness. "It was the 10 or 15 minutes that changed the world," Lewis said.
CAPTION: Edmund Pettus Bridge was a setting for violence in 1965, but yesterday it was a setting for peace and Olympic torch relay.
CAPTION: Andrew Young, a civil rights activist in 1965, helped organize the march that led to change in Selma, Ala.