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National

Southern Christian Leadership Conference President Marches For Selma Anniversary

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This week, marchers in Alabama began walking east along Highway 80. They're re-creating the Selma to Montgomery voting rights march of 1965, walking 54 miles, often through heavy rain. And now they've reached the outskirts of the state capital. The 50th anniversary march was organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the SCLC president, Charles Steele, joins me from a stopping point along the way. And I gather, Mr. Steele, the weather hasn't exactly been cooperating with you this week?

CHARLES STEELE: No, but we don't mind the rain. Our people get excited when it rains. And we've been through the rain, considering where we're headed - embarking upon. But that's nothing in comparison to what we're trying to accomplish.

BLOCK: Well, I want to talk to you about what you want to accomplish here in a minute. But first, who's marching? What's the turnout been like?

STEELE: Well, we have people from all over the world. We actually wanted to keep it from 50 to 60 people in terms of the actual marchers, but we gave in because of the enthusiasm and excitement along the way. People very readily began to march with us. We have 150 people now on an average basis, and we are so excited about it.

BLOCK: Are any of the folks who are marching people who were there in 1965 on Bloody Sunday when the marchers were clubbed - attacked by police?

STEELE: Absolutely. We had a ceremony yesterday - spiritual rally on the march when we took our break. We had at least ten persons who was actually the original marchers who was on that bridge. And they're here, very enthusiastic, and still got that energy, and still marching. Of course, out of the 10, maybe four or five take a break and get in the van and ride and then get back out and march again.

BLOCK: Well, what do you hope to accomplish with the march this year?

STEELE: Well, we hope to reinvigorate the motivation. We also realize that we've come a long ways, but 50 years after the 1965 Voter Rights Act was passed, we still have to do it again. Roughly two years ago the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the 1965 Voter Rights Act by taking the heart of section four and section five out of that bill. So the states have the right to discriminate, to bring about racism and classism and disrespect poor people. As Doctor King, as you know, advocated for the poor. So the lesson out of this is that you can't rest on your laurels.

BLOCK: Mr. Steele, when the news came late last night about the two police officers who were shot and wounded in Ferguson, Missouri, what was your reaction? What are the marchers saying about that?

STEELE: The first thing when I heard it early this morning - I turned on the TV, and I mentioned to my wife in the motel here in Montgomery - I said, baby, that's a good example of the lack of infrastructure of education - that you can't leave behind a generation of people without educating them in the civil rights movement. They don't have a civil rights infrastructure in St. Louis or Ferguson or throughout Missouri. And we are saying now let's take a crises and turn it into an opportunity of conflict reconciliation and of teaching the nonviolence about Doctor Martin Luther King and the philosophy of the civil rights movement.

BLOCK: Are there young people on this march, Mr. Steele, who wouldn't remember anything about 1965?

STEELE: Most definitely. There are more young people in this march than the elder folks like myself. I'm 68 years of age. They are so energized. They are so motivated. And one young person mentioned to me about two - three months ago - asked me the question, how did it feel to March in the '60s and the '70s? And they wish that they were there with us to support us. I said, don't worry. You have your opportunity. Fifty years later, you can join this train of marching for justice and equality. You can make history by getting our 1965 voting rights back that we marched for so diligently 50 years ago. And we're happy to have you in the march.

BLOCK: Well, Mr. Steele, thanks for talking with us. Wee appreciate it.

STEELE: Thank you. Thank you.

BLOCK: That's Charles Steele. He's president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He joined us from Macedonia Ministries along the route of the 50th anniversary march from Selma to Montgomery. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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