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Selma | Then & Now

Fifty years later, we remember the march across a bridge that changed a nation.

WXIA Staff

SELMA , Ala. -- The events that unfolded in this tiny Alabama town 50 years ago changed the nation forever. The march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge set in motion a series of events that made "Bloody Sunday" the turning point of the civil rights movement.

Congressman John Lewis said Selma selected herself: "This city, this county, was majority African-American. At one time, it was 57% African-American. Only 2% were registered to vote."

To draw the nation's attention to their struggle, Lewis and fellow Atlantan Hosea Williams were selected to lead a 50-mile march from Selma to Montgomery. It was Sunday, March 7, 1965. Six hundred marchers started at Brown Chapel Church and moved toward the bridge into Selma.

"We came to the highest point on this bridge and down below we saw a sea of blue, Alabama State Troopers," Lewis said. "I thought that we were going be arrested and go to jail, and I was prepared to go to jail."

The marchers' fates would be worse than jail. The Alabama State Troopers unleashed a brutal attack. The images were broadcast around the world.

"I really thought I was going to die. I thought I saw death. I said to myself, I'm gonna die on this bridge," Lewis said.

The troubling images shook the nation. They were impossible to ignore. President Johnson took action. On August 6, 1965 he signed the Voting Rights Act.

"The blood of so many of my fellow marchers, they helped change America," Lewis said.

"Selma is much different now than it was then. The people have changed; the same people don't have the same attitude or the same disposition," said George Evans, mayor of Selma. Evans grew up in Selma. He wasn't in town for Bloody Sunday, but his brother was.

"It was a traumatic experience for him and actually he became stung by different gasses and things like that. He got locked up in jail on several occasions," he said.

Evans is the second black mayor of the city. "Times have changed, people have changed and it's a new generation of people," he said. "The new Selma is the people of Selma, black and white working together for a better Selma and changing the quality of life for those who follow us."

Henry Edward Allen was Selma's first African-American fire chief. He paints a less rosy picture of Selma. He says the city still struggles to reach its full potential.

"We hadn't come together as a people. Well, now we have about five or six nationalities in Selma. We have great resources in Selma but my biggest thing is being able to pool it all together, to get this community to come together as a whole," he said.

Now he's retired. He calls himself a historian, and spends a lot of time in Selma schools. "Sharing the story about black history, trying to inspire kids that freedom is not free, it came with a cost and we didn't always have the opportunity that they are now sharing," he said.

The marches across the Edmund Pettus Bridge led to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and today the bridge is a symbol of victory for change. But did you know the bridge is named after a man who served as Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan? Pettus was also a Confederate General, and was later elected as a United States Senator.

Leaders of a grassroots effort to rename the bridge ask how a landmark that holds so much significance could be named after a man who not only supported slavery, but held one of the highest positions with the Klan.

More than 150,000 people have already signed an online petition asking the U.S. National Park Services, the Governor of Alabama, and the Mayor of Selma to change the name. The petition reads, in part, "The name Edmund Pettus is far from what the city of Selma should honor. Let's change the image of the bridge from hatred and rename it to memorialize hope and progress."

Congressman John Lewis sat down with 11Alive's DeMarco Morgan to reflect on Selma 50 years later.

Morgan: You nearly lost your life on this bridge – why do you think you were left behind when we lost so many civil rights leaders?

Lewis: Well, I feel blessed that I've been able to be here, to stay here, that I didn't die on this bridge because I really thought I was going to die.

Morgan: But do you still think "why me"? Why did I get to make it to Congress in Washington D.C. and to this whole level?

Lewis: I said to myself, and I often think about it. I think about the individuals that I worked with, marched with. I often think about Dr. King, Robert Kennedy and others that have gone on. I have an obligation to do what I can to help because I'm here to continue to tell the story.

Morgan: And your message to those who still try to set up road blocks for those who are voting, the importance of voting, why you almost gave your life on this bridge?

Lewis: We're determined to fix the voting rights site and continue to push and pull, and we will not stop, we will not give in. The right to vote is precious. It's almost sacred and it shouldn't be interfered with.

Elisabeth Omilami grew up in the civil rights movement. Her memories of Selma include her famous parents, central to organizing that march.

Omilami: My father (Hosea Williams) was responsible for organizing the Selma march itself because that was his job. He was in charge of logistics so he would go in. Any city that they were going to march, he would preach to the people and make sure they weren't afraid and make sure they understood how to march.

The thing that was different about Selma was that nobody was quite sure how violent the police were going to be, and that's always something he would take into consideration. So that if he and his guys had to march first and get beat, they would do that so they could see just what the atmosphere of the police was.

Morgan: So that explains why he was in the front to of so many marches, he was sort of looking out for everyone. He was also daring. He led the first march.

Omilami: You grow up in a way that's... I sort of raised myself because they were very... when they say "give your life to something," they literally meant that -- from morning 'til they passed out at night. It was movement, it was flyers, it was doing invoices, making phone calls, copying stuff, passing it out for the next mass meeting. So the children were involved in that.

Unlike many other civil rights movement children, we were in the streets at five in the morning, we were passing out flyers, we were in the mass meetings taking up collection. We were doing these things. It wasn't until I got much older that I began to realize that I missed my parents. I missed the mothering, I missed the fathering, I missed the normal kid growing up.

I was very much involved in the movement. The things that I saw, most kids never saw. It is a bittersweet feeling, however, when I think about the fact that what my father was involved in not only changed the United States but changed the world.

Bernice King had not even turned two years old when her father led hundreds of marchers over the Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday. She said she first truly understood the events of Selma many years later. Now, 50 years later, King speaks with 11Alive's Matt Pearl on how the movement has evolved since - and where she thinks it can do better.

"We need to rediscover that philosophy, because it's kind of gotten lost," Dr. Bernice King said. She speaks of the philosophy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr . and not just her father's non-violent approach .

"He was able to galvanize people around typically a single focus , but he never just left a particular issue. Instead of combining the efforts in a very organized way, we've kind of diluted our efforts ."

That dilution, that loss of momentum, King says, left activists unprepared when the Supreme Court overturned the Voting Rights Act fueled by Selma . "People may be concerned that we are rolling back the clock," she said.

But Selma at 50 has never seemed so fresh . Last year's Selma movie brought vivid imagery to a new generation, building its own activism after the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner. King hopes weekends like this cultivate those efforts. "It's not just about showing up with your voice; it's about having a plan and a strategy ."

Fifty years after Bloody Sunday marks another historic moment: the city of Selma welcomes the nation's first black president.

"If someone had told me that one day I would have the opportunity to walk across this bridge 50 years later with the first African-American president I would've said 'You're crazy, you're out of your mind, you don't know what you're talking about,'" Lewis said.

Congressman Lewis remains humble about his role in the civil rights movement and the path he lead for other African-American politicians.

"At the inauguration, I asked [President Obama] to sign a little note, a piece of paper and he said "because of you, John," this was in '09 and then in '13 he said to me he said, "it's still because of you, John."

President Barack Obama will be in Selma during the 50th anniversary and plans to give a speech near the bridge on Saturday.

Thousands of people from around the world made the trip to Selma March 5-9 to recognize the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. Current U.S. President Barack Obama, former President George W. Bush, Congressional representatives, top names in entertainment, and civil rights leaders all joined grassroots activists to march across the bridge in commemoration.

An overflow crowed filled the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church on Sunday for a pre-march service. The crowd was so large that it spilled out into the streets. The church was the starting point for the 1965 Selma-to-Mongtomery marches. Speakers at Sunday's service included Attorney General Eric Holder, former Atlanta Mayor and U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, Martin Luther King III and Al Sharpton.

The planned organized march after the church service was canceled due to the large volume of people at the bridge. However, thousands chose to make the march across the bridge.

If you're in Selma, UPLOADyour photos so we can include them in our gallery.