SELMA, Alabama (AP) — More than 5,000 people followed Vice President Joe Biden and black leaders across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to commemorate the notorious 1965 beating of rights marchers, an event that galvanized the civil rights movement and pushed Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act the same year.
The marchers on Sunday followed Biden and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, across the bridge in Selma's annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee. In March 1965, the marchers — including a young Lewis — were beaten by state troopers as they began a march to Montgomery. The 50-mile (80-kilometer) march shocked the country and led to the Voting Rights Act that struck down impediments to voting by African-Americans and ended all-white rule in the South.
Biden, the first sitting vice president to participate in the annual re-enactment, said nothing shaped his consciousness more than watching TV footage of the beatings.
"We saw in stark relief the rank hatred, discrimination and violence that still existed in large parts of the nation," he said.
Biden said marchers "broke the back of the forces of evil," but that challenges to voting rights continue today with restrictions on early voting and voter registration drives and enactment of voter identification laws where no voter fraud has been shown.
Voter identification laws have largely been supported by Republicans who insist they are needed to prevent voter fraud. Democrats contend such laws suppress minority voter turnout because a higher percentage of blacks and Latinos than white lack the government-issued documents such as a driver's license or passport that some states require to cast a vote.
"We will never give up or give in," Lewis told marchers.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, a prominent civil rights leader, said Sunday's event had a sense of urgency because the U.S. Supreme Court heard a request Wednesday by a mostly white Alabama county to strike down a key portion of the Voting Rights Act.
"We've had the right to vote 48 years, but they've never stopped trying to diminish the impact of the votes," Jackson said.
Referring to the Voting Rights act, another civil right activist, the Rev. Al Sharpton, said: "We are not here for a commemoration. We are here for a continuation."
The Supreme Court is weighing Shelby County's challenge to a portion of the law that requires states with a history of racial discrimination, mostly in the Deep South, to get approval from the Justice Department before implementing any changes in election laws. That includes everything from new voting districts to voter identification laws.
Attorneys for Shelby County argued that the pre-clearance requirement is outdated in a state where one-fourth of the Legislature is black. But Jackson predicted the South will return such moves as eliminating black-majority districts and holding more at-large elections to diminish black voting strength if the Supreme Court voids part of the law.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, the defendant in Shelby County's suit, told marchers that the South is far different than it was in 1965 but is not yet at the point where the most important part of the voting rights act can be dismissed as unnecessary.
Martin Luther King III, whose father led the march when it resumed after Bloody Sunday, said, "We come here not to just celebrate and observe but to recommit."
One of the attorneys for the NAACP civil rights organization who argued the case, Debo Adegbile, said when Congress renewed the Voting Rights Act in 2006, it understood that the act makes sure minority inclusion is considered up front.
"It reminds us to think consciously about how we can include all our citizens in democracy. That is as important today as it was in 1965," he said.
Adegbile said the continued need for the law was shown in 2011 when undercover recordings from a bribery investigation at the Alabama Legislature included one white legislator referring to blacks as "aborigines" and other white legislators laughing.
"This was 2011. This was not 1965," he said.