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Independent Living News & Policy from the National Council on Independent Living

Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” and the Marches of Selma to Montgomery, AL

The disability rights community was informed about the events for the commemoration of the anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” and the marches of Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in an announcement from the White House sent out to social justice advocates.

On March 7, 1965 approximately 600 civil rights activists set out to participate in a peaceful demonstration based on obtaining the right to vote by walking over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. They were confronted by and beaten, tear gassed, and trampled over by Alabama State Troopers who stopped their advancement to Montgomery. The events of that day and the weeks that followed were the catalyst to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

This year marks the 50th Anniversary of these events. Representative John Lewis (D-GA) was then a young civil rights activist and was badly beaten on “Bloody Sunday”. He was one of the leaders of the group that attempted to cross the bridge. He remains an active member of the civil and voting rights movement today.

Taryn Mackenzie Williams, Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, sent the announcement below in early February informing the disability rights community about President Obama’s plans for the weekend in Alabama.

Dear Friends,

President Obama will travel to Selma, Alabama on March 7th to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches. This visit will also highlight the President and his Administration’s overall efforts to mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. More details of this trip will be announced at a later date. Please share with your networks and if you questions regarding this visit please email africanamericans@who.eop.gov

Best,
Taryn Mackenzie Williams

From the President’s remarks:

Because of what they did, the doors of opportunity swung open not just for black folks, but for every American. Women marched through those doors. Latinos marched through those doors. Asian Americans, gay Americans, Americans with disabilities — they all came through those doors. (Applause.) Their endeavors gave the entire South the chance to rise again, not by reasserting the past, but by transcending the past. 

It was through the wonderful relationship NCIL has created with Taryn Mackenzie Williams and the White House that a group of leaders from Alabama Centers for Independent Living were able to participate in the events in Selma, shake both President Obama and the First Lady Michelle Obama’s hand, and take pictures with great civil rights leaders like House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD). Participants looked fabulous in their ADA25th Anniversary T-shirts – and we thank Mark Johnson of the Shepherd Center for sending them to Alabama via overnight delivery!

From Dan Kessler, Immediate Past-Chair of NCIL Board and Executive Director of the Disability Rights and Resources, based in Birmingham, Alabama.

This once in a lifetime experience was all made possible by Taryn Mackenzie Williams! Thanks to Taryn, Kelly Buckland, and Dara Baldwin.

Alabama CILs were well represented at the President’s speech at Selma. Traveling to Selma were Dan Kessler and Gail Kessler from Birmingham, Carmen and Kent Crenshaw of Montgomery, Maze and Donyelle Marshall of Montgomery, and Janice and Fred O’Neal of Montgomery. Maze and Fred are veterans with disabilities.

Friday morning, buses pulled up in front of the 16th St. Baptist Church, one block from Disability Rights and Resources. We learned that John Lewis and his entourage had been paying a visit to the 16th St. Baptist Church and Birmingham Civil Rights Institute on their way to Selma.

Our small convoy left Montgomery early on Saturday morning, through rolling hills, past pecan orchards, cotton fields and farms, arriving in Selma at about 7:30 a.m. The atmosphere was festive and charged in anticipation of the President’s visit. While waiting in line, we saw members of the King family and civil rights leader Hosea Williams’ family.

From where we were stationed inside the venue, some of us saw Representative John Lewis (D-GA) – who spoke at a NCIL rally several years ago – Minority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), Dick Gregory, Danny Glover, Al Sharpton, Birmingham Mayor William Bell, Representative Terri Sewell (D-AL), Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Jessie Jackson, and many more civil rights leaders. The First Lady and President approached the accessible seating area and shook hands with Kent and Carmen Crenshaw who were wearing their ADA25 shirts! Carmen got some great photos of the President and First Lady.

Amongst historic buildings lining the wide streets of Selma, we waited approximately 5 hours before the President spoke in front of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The weather was perfect—sunny and in the 60s. We met people of all ages who came from great distances, including sisters and former Selma residents now residing in cities like Boston and Baltimore. Off to our right were hundreds of members of the media from across the globe. Several rows behind us, protesters were drumming and chanting during the President’s speech, drawing the attention of Alabama state troopers and others who came to hear the President.

Prior to the President’s speech, speakers included Alabama Governor Bentley, Representative Terri Sewell, and the legendary Representative John Lewis, who introduced the President. The President gave a powerful speech, evoking the sacrifices made by civil rights activists 50 years ago and reminding us that “the march is not over”. I agree with those who think this was one of the President’s best speeches.

Kent Crenshaw summed up the day perfectly, “I am so thankful to have had the opportunity to meet and shake hands with President Obama at the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. This was a pivotal moment that I and so many others will never forget. This will further motivate me to continue to fight for civil rights and the rights of people with disabilities.”

To learn more about Disability Rights and Resources, visit www.drradvocates.org.

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