LOS ANGELES — County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and U.S. Rep. Karen Bass were among the thousands of marchers who joined including President Barack Obama this past weekend on the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery March.
The historic march, which retraced the steps taken half a century ago on the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge, brought together elected officials, civil rights activists and ordinary citizens hoping to capture the energy and to re-ignite a movement.
“Finding my way to Selma is a journey to a high point in civil rights history that I could not imagine ignoring,” Ridley-Thomas said upon his return. “I [went] for my own sense of commitment but also as a way of saluting those brave men and women who gave so much in order for us to enjoy the right to vote.”
Calling the Voting Rights Act of 1965 one of the “crowning achievements of our democracy,” President Obama noted the significance of a recent Supreme Court ruling that struck down an important aspect of the law in his speech at the bridge March 7.
“Had it not been for Bloody Sunday, I doubt there would have been a Voting Rights Act,” Ridley-Thomas said, referring to the seminal event a half-century ago when marchers demanding voting rights were severely beaten and tear-gassed by officers. “That form of brutality set in motion a truer democracy in this land. It was a watershed moment in the history of civil rights in this nation.”
“It was a very emotional weekend to think about how many advances have been made and at the exact same moments to roll back the advancements that have been made,” Bass said in a phone interview.
“We come from a country that has taken pride in telling the rest of the world how to build and strengthen your democracy and the right to vote is the most essential thing in a democracy. And yet we’re living in a time period where people are trying to restrict and reduce the right to vote for others.”
While the route was the same, marchers enjoyed better conditions than there were 50 years ago. Rather than experience a beating at the hands of police, the marchers locked arms and chanted songs, cried tears of joy and smiled at the turn of history of the march being led by an African-American president.
“This is where the new dream is born,” said Assemblyman Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, who accompanied his father to Selma
Supervisor Ridley-Thomas was quick to point out that challenges remain. The Edmund Pettus Bridge that marchers crossed is named for a Confederate general who was also a leader of the Ku Klux Klan and the Selma City Council only a few years ago spent city funds to erect a monument in honor of Nathan Bedford Forrest, another Confederate general who was the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
Poverty, unemployment, health disparities are still higher among African Americans than other racial groups, the senior Ridley-Thomas said.
Despite the sacrifices made by the civil rights era generation, voter participation rates in the United States are still among the lowest of any industrialized nation, with less than 40 percent of eligible voters exercising their right. In Los Angeles, the March 3 election saw less than 10 percent of eligible voters turn out.
“The work is not done, the march is not over,” said actress and activist Sheryl Lee Ralph, who joined the celebrants in Selma and echoed the president’s call to action. “Selma is now.”
“I think there has been tremendous change but we can’t relax,” Bass said of the last 50 years. “Never lose sight of the advancement, but never for one moment be complacent.”