Hundreds of demonstrators gathered at the State Capitol Sunday afternoon in an emotional commemoration of the bloody police assault on civil rights marchers in Selma five decades ago. The event was one of many held over the weekend throughout the country, honoring the sacrifices of the civil rights fighters and retracing the happenings of that fateful day, which spurred on the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
On March 7, 1965, 600 unarmed civil rights activists from Selma marched on the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River en route to the state capital in Montgomery to reclaim the right to vote. Before they had reached their mark, however, state troopers and local police confronted the protestors with billy clubs and tear gas.
“The work of the civil rights foot soldiers in Selma is a reminder that our rights and responsibilities as citizens in the American experiment must be taken on by every subsequent generation for the ideals of our country to endure,” Minnesota Department of Human Rights commissioner Kevin Lindsey told a crowd of more than 700 people at the event. “The greatness of America is in our collective hands and in the values of respect and love that we pass on to our children.”
Addressing the audience, Yusef Mgeni, a longtime St. Paul resident and civil rights activist, said: “While we commemorate this great march, we cannot forget that our rights are not yet secured; the ongoing struggle for civil rights continues.”
Some of the unfinished tasks before Americans today, Lindsey proclaimed, include restoring the right to vote for felons after their release from prison, registering students to vote while in high school. and allowing the poor improved access to the ballot box by expanding early voting.
“Let’s cross the bridge together to ensure that all have the opportunity to pursue their career or their business dreams,” he added. “Let’s make sure that every child obtains education that would allow them to be successful.”
After the speeches at the Capitol, people marched hand-in-hand to Central Presbyterian Church in downtown St. Paul, singing “We Shall Overcome.”
At the church, they joined in interfaith prayers and inspirational speeches of unity, equality and justice for all.
Meanwhile, officials and leaders from Minnesota traveled to Selma last weekend to join President Obama and prominent national leaders in commemoration.
“I thought it’s important to be a part of a living history, to come together with people from all around the country to speak on civil rights and social justice issues,” said Nekima Levy-Pounds, law professor at the University of St. Thomas, speaking from Selma. “I see this anniversary as a benchmark in our nation’s history. It demonstrates the power of resistance to oppression and how people are willing to rise up, demonstrate courage and tenacity, and fight for what they believe in.”
Other Minnesotans who spent the weekend in Selma included St. Paul Police Chief Tom Smith and members from Minnesota churches and Black Lives Matter Minneapolis.
Levy-Pounds said she was moved by the president’s speech on Saturday at the Edmund Pettus Bridge and mindful of the progress the country has made since Selma.
“I didn’t think I would see a black president in my lifetime,” she added. “I was glad when I listened to the president’s remarks when he talked about the Ferguson report and what was happening with the police department and how the Ferguson report is bleak, in terms of what it says about race-relations.”
In St. Paul, Sen. Bobby Joe Champion said the gathering should renew the nation’s commitment to do what’s important today in order to pave the way for future generations. “I’m feeling moved because of the coalition of people that were out there: Jewish folks, black folks and white individuals,” he said.
“As Muslims, we feel that it’s a very important event to promote equality, brotherhood and non-discrimination,” said Zafar Siddiqui, co-founder of the Islamic Resource Group.