Joe Biden received a warm reception Sunday in this crucible of the civil rights movement as he and other Democratic presidential hopefuls appealed for black support in a town where demonstrators were once beaten for marching for the right to vote.
Themes of fighting voter suppression, providing the poor with a way up and defeating President Donald Trump took center stage at events marking the 55th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” the day in 1965 white police attacked black marchers in Selma. This year’s commemoration came two days before Alabama Democrats join voters in more than a dozen states in the Super Tuesday cluster of primary elections.
Just hours after strong support by black voters in South Carolina lifted Biden to his first primary victory, the former vice president spoke during the morning worship at historic Brown Chapel AME Church.
An excited buzz and cheers arose as Biden entered the sanctuary, and many in the congregation stood to applaud as he moved toward the pulpit. Quoting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., former President Barack Obama and the Bible, Biden said the country has moved the wrong way under Trump.
“We’ve been dragged backward and we’ve lost ground. We’ve seen all too clearly that if you give hate any breathing room it comes back,” he said.
Former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who split endorsements of leading black political groups in Alabama with Biden, received a lukewarm reception during a 10-minute talk at the pulpit. Bloomberg highlighted his ability as mayor of New York to work with activist Al Sharpton, seated a few feet away.
“For too long we have gone on with just listening and letting the status quo continue,” Bloomberg said. As he spoke, about 10 audience members stood and turned their backs toward him.
Rep. John Lewis, who was beaten in the Bloody Sunday fracas, made a surprise appearance at the apex of the Edmund Pettus Bridge to start an annual re-enactment of the ‘65 march. Lewis’ schedule has been limited since he announced earlier this year he had advanced cancer.
Speaking to a massive crowd that included Bloomberg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Lewis told the throng that “we cannot give in.”
“Speak up, speak out, get in the way,” Lewis said in a strong voice from atop a short ladder. “Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America.”
Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg was among the candidates who joined the crowd of thousands on the bridge even though he ended his campaign just hours later. Warren and Sen. Amy Klobuchar appeared at a late afternoon forum. Tom Steyer also was in town despite suspending his campaign after a poor showing in South Carolina.
Rep. Terri Sewell, the lone black member of Alabama’s congressional delegation, urged hundreds of people attending a community breakfast to vote for Biden and enable “a return to civility.”
“Joe Biden not only knows me, he knows you,” she said.
On March 7, 1965, Alabama state troopers beat and tear-gassed hundreds of voting-rights demonstrators trying to march from Selma to Montgomery, the capital. Only 25 at the time and years away from joining Congress, Lewis led the marchers and was among the injured.
The confrontation set the stage for the massive Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march led by King weeks later and helped inspire passage of the Voting Rights Act that year.
The years since have been tough on Selma, where shuttered businesses and vacant, dilapidated homes stand just blocks from magnificent antebellum mansions. The city and surrounding Dallas County typically have some of the highest jobless rates in the state.
The town’s population is steadily declining, and census statistics show 41% of the estimated 17,800 people who remain live in poverty. About 82% of the town’s residents are black, and both schools and neighborhoods are mostly segregated by race with blacks attending public schools and whites attending private academies. Crime, much of it linked to gangs, is a constant problem, authorities say.
Selma Mayor Darrio Melton endorsed Biden as someone who could help. “Joe understands the issues families in Selma and communities across the country face,” he said.
Located about 50 miles west of Montgomery, Selma has deep ties to both civil rights and the Civil War. Aside from being the site of Bloody Sunday, the Edmund Pettus Bridge is named for a Confederate general and U.S. senator who advocated for white supremacy.