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Obama Evokes The 'Eternal Struggle' In Selma


Today in Selma, Ala., thousands are expected to participate in the symbolic crossing of the Edmund Pettis Bridge, it's part of a weekend of events commemorating the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday when state troopers attacked civil rights marchers. Yesterday, President Obama joined others in his own commemorative walk across the bridge. In his remarks, he pointed to Selma as a touchstone for racial progress today.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Fifty years from Bloody Sunday, our march is not yet finished. But we're getting closer

MARTIN: That day in Selma ultimately brought about the 1965 Voting Rights Act. And it's a legacy that this Alabama town bears proudly. Crowds have descended upon Selma to mark this anniversary, and NPR's Debbie Elliott brings us the story.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Downtown Selma is alive with activity. Souvenir and T-shirt vendors are set up on street corners for the annual bridge crossing jubilee. Like any Southern small-town festival, there are beauty queens and barbecue. This milestone anniversary weekend has also served as a reunion of sorts for foot soldiers of the civil rights movement, people like Rita Jackson Samuels.

RITA JACKSON SAMUELS: I was young, and I thought we could save the world. I was a secretary in Dr. King's office. It was really an intern, but they didn't call it that.

ELLIOTT: Samuels took part in the Selma to Montgomery voting rights march after they won federal protection to complete the journey.

SAMUELS: So this is something. I'm back 50 years later not walking as fast in this street, but I'm still walking. And I'm happy to be here.

ELLIOTT: Samuels says despite mighty progress, the fight for equality isn't over.

SAMUELS: And so we just have to keep walking, keep marching, you know, keep praying. So we're not going to give up, but it is a long - it's an eternal struggle. That's what I think.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: You can't stop the revolution.

ELLIOTT: There were calls for justice on issues including police brutality, equal pay and same-sex marriage. But the major focus in Selma has been on the state of voting rights today.

JOHN FORD: The voting rights act that we fought and died in bled for is literally dead as doornail because the Supreme Court has gutted it.

ELLIOTT: Mayor Johnny Ford of Tuskegee, Ala., is the founder of the National Conference of Black Mayors.

FORD: It's good for us to celebrate for a while, for the next couple of days, then we need to go to work.

ELLIOTT: Go to work, he says, convincing Congress to restore portions of the voting rights act that were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court two years ago in a case from Shelby County, Ala. Martin Luther King III was 7 years old when his father and freedom marchers were making history here. He calls it a tragedy that the law that came out of the Selma movement is now, in his words, decimated.

MARTIN LUTHER KING III: If my dad were here, he would be a little disappointed that we have made progress, but then we've gone backward. But he would always challenge the nation because the nation can and must do better, and will.

ELLIOTT: Civil rights Attorney Janai Nelson with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund was glad to hear President Obama address the need to restore the voting rights act. And it was fitting, she says, for him to deliver the message from the base of Selma's iconic Edmund Pettis Bridge.

JANAI NELSON: It almost brings tears to your eyes if not fully to know that we have come so far in these 50 years that we have gone from being, you know, forcibly denied the right to vote to electing the first black president and having him address us after serving two terms in office.

ELLIOTT: For foot soldiers, the difference in Selma today was personal. Activist Dick Gregory.

DICK GREGORY: It's great for one reason - there's no fear. Fifty years ago we all thought we could die. And once you lose the fear, then everything changes.

ELLIOTT: Today, there will be no fear of brutal resistance when civil rights leaders and foot soldiers lead pilgrims over the Edmund Pettis Bridge. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Montgomery. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.