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Honoring The Selma March, Half A Century Later

ARUN RATH, HOST:

The weather was peaceful 50 years ago today in Selma, Ala. - as peaceful as the crowd that had assembled to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on route to Montgomery. The civil rights movement was stopped in its tracks that day - empiric victory for local police.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It would be detrimental to your safety to continue this march and I'm saying again that this is unlawful in safety. You have to disperse - you are ordered to disperse. Go home or go to your church. This march will not continue.

RATH: Nonviolent resistance was met with violent force.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Advance towards the groups - see that they disperse.

RATH: March 7, 1965 became known as Bloody Sunday.

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RATH: NPR's Debbie Elliott is in Selma for the city's 50th anniversary commemoration of the march from Selma to Montgomery. President Obama spoke earlier. Debbie, can you share some of the highlights of President Obama's speech?

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: You know, he talked about Selma being a defining time and place where the nation's destiny was decided. He said 50 years from Bloody Sunday, the march is not yet finished but we're getting closer. I think in this speech he was really trying to acknowledge the progress that was made based on the sacrifices that people made on Bloody Sunday and the ensuing voting rights march to Montgomery. But he also encouraged the nation to deal with issues of today. And specifically, he talked a little bit about Ferguson and how that has been an issue dealing with race that this country is confronting and here's what he had to say.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What happened in Ferguson may not be unique but it's no longer endemic - it's no longer sanctioned by law or by custom. And before the civil rights movement, it most surely was.

ELLIOTT: So again, the president trying to show just how far the country has come since Selma 50 years ago.

RATH: Debbie, very curious to know among the other speakers today, how much were they focusing on history and how much on current racial problems?

ELLIOTT: You know, a little bit of both. A recurring theme was sort of the march is not over, the work is not over. The congresswoman from Selma quoted one of the leaders of the Selma movement who said she was tired of people talking about standing on her shoulders. She said, get off of my shoulders there is work to be done - get out there and do something. And the recurring theme that I heard from people here was about the Voting Rights Act. You know, the march and the violence here spurred the nation to pass the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Eight days after Bloody Sunday, President Lyndon Johnson made a speech before Congress saying we shall overcome - using the words of the movement to encourage Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act. Now people here are talking about since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, that there's a need to revisit that - something that the president also talked about in his speech.

RATH: Debbie, what can you tell us about the size and the makeup of the crowd and how they've been reacting to the speeches?

ELLIOTT: You know, there are tens of thousands of people here. If you stand at the intersection where the Edmund Pettus Bridge crosses the Alabama River and you look in either direction, it was just a sea of people. And you know, I stood for a moment where people came into the cordoned off area that the Secret Service had created here and people would come through those gates, they'd stand on the grounds, some would raise their hands, some would cry. There was really this sense of people making a pilgrimage to what they considered to be hallowed ground.

RATH: That's NPR's Debbie Elliott in Selma, Ala. Debbie, thanks very much.

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