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Anniversary March Commemorates Selma's Voting Rights Fight

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Today in Selma, Ala., thousands of people crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge to mark the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the confrontation between civil rights marchers and Alabama state troopers in 1965 that helped lead to passage of the Voting Rights Act. NPR's Debbie Elliott is in Selma and joins us from the scene of the march. Deb, describe the scene there today. How did it compare with yesterday?

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: You know, there are tens of thousands of people streaming down the streets of downtown Selma, just like there were yesterday. But yesterday, it was a very controlled event. People were here to see the president. Today, it's like the people's march. They're chanting. There are booths set up. People are buying things. The line to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge stretches for blocks on end. People started this morning at Brown Chapel AME Church. There were services. They left the church and started marching in the same steps that marchers took 50 years ago.

RATH: Attorney General Eric Holder was among the dignitaries addressing the crowd today. What was his message?

ELLIOTT: You know, he drew a lot of parallels between 50 years ago and the injustices that the marchers faced and some of the issues that still divide America today. He took the pulpit at AME - the Brown Chapel AME church. And he talked about how people fought for voting rights back then, but that the fight must go on, that the franchise was still under siege. Here's what he had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

ERIC HOLDER: We will march on until the self-evident truth of equality is made real for every American. We will march on until every citizen is afforded his or her fundamental right to vote.

ELLIOTT: Holder said you have to acknowledge the progress that was made when the first black president was able to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge yesterday. He is an African-American attorney general. These are things that were unimaginable for the people who sacrificed 50 years ago. But he said progress is not the ultimate goal. He said equality is still the prize.

RATH: So, Debbie, what comes next? Are you hearing anything about where the activists feel like the efforts need to go from here?

ELLIOTT: There are a few things that are happening. One is that some of the old guard civil rights leaders - people who were very active in Selma 50 years ago, including the Reverend Bernard Lafayette - they're going to do a symbolic passing of the torch. They are going to gather with young activists from Ferguson, Mo., and say, look, this movement needs to carry on, and we are expecting you to do it. You know, let us teach you about our nonviolent methods, and let's see how we can move forward from here. There are also a group of people who will gather tomorrow in Selma, Ala., and re-create that journey all the way to Montgomery that the marchers won federal protection for 50 years ago.

RATH: That's NPR's Debbie Elliott at the scene of the march in Selma, Ala. Debbie, thanks very much.

ELLIOTT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.