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Marchers Tie Selma Message To Today's Injustices


President Obama will be in Selma, Ala., today to mark a key anniversary in this nation's history. Fifty years ago on March 7, 1965, Alabama state troopers and sheriff's deputies beat back civil rights marchers as they tried to cross Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge.


SIMON: Images of the confrontations sparked national outrage and drew attention to the brutal resistance to equal voting rights in the South. NPR's Debbie Elliott joins us now from Selma where commemorative events are underway. Debbie, thanks for being with us.

DEBBIE ELLIOT, BYLINE: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Selma has become a symbol of voting rights around the world really. What's the scene there today?

ELLIOT: You know, people have been coming from all over the country to be here for this weekend's 50th anniversary events. Crowds are already starting to line up today. They're trying to get a position close to the Edmund Pettus Bridge. That's going to be the backdrop for President Obama's speech. Other officials are going to be here today, including former President George W. Bush, the large delegation from Congress, and, of course, there are a lot of foot soldiers who have come back to Selma, people who actually marched 50 years ago are back here. And tomorrow, there's going to be a symbolic re-enactment of that infamous march across the bridge.

SIMON: Let's remind listeners of the events that occurred there 50 years ago - bloody and tragic and ultimately led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

ELLIOT: Right, history-changing for America in every way. You know, in the early 1960s, only about two percent of the eligible black citizens here in Selma were registered to vote because of staunch resistance from the people in power - the white elite here. White folks back in that day were known to wear buttons that said, never as in we're never going to change in Selma. So this was a tough place to crack. Civil rights workers had been working with students and teachers here trying to make change but had little success. Then in early '65, a activist was killed nearby in Marion, Ala., and so people decided they were going to march to Montgomery to confront Alabama's governor, segregationist Governor George Wallace at the time. But when protesters tried to leave Selma, crossing the Alabama River over that Edmund Pettus Bridge, that's when that scene unfolded when state troopers and sheriff's deputies attacked them with nightsticks and tear gas. It became known as Bloody Sunday.

SIMON: President Obama comes to Selma at a time when the nation is once again confronting issues of race. And earlier this week, it was Department of Justice, of course, issued that report on racist behavior by police in Ferguson, Mo. What do the folks you're talking to in Selma say they're looking to hear from President Obama?

ELLIOT: You know, I'm hearing they want truth. They want a frank discussion about how Selma speaks to race today. Davette Wiltson (ph) came from Springfield, Mass.

DAVETTE WILTSON: I hope that what we're going to see is not a lot of rhetoric. I hope they're really going to talk about Ferguson, racial profiling. I hope we have a conversation about racism.

ELLIOT: She walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and wants to hear truth.

SIMON: NPR's Debbie Elliott reporting from Selma. Thanks very much for being with us.

ELLIOT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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