RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Fifty years ago, Americans were waking up to shocking images of Alabama state troopers and sheriff's deputies viciously attacking civil rights marchers on Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge. Yesterday, tens of thousands of people from around the country packed onto that bridge in a peaceful pilgrimage to mark the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Under a bright blue sky, a line formed, shoulder to shoulder, at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
WILLIAM BARBER: Today...
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Today...
BARBER: ...We march across this bridge.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: ...We march across this bridge.
ELLIOTT: The Reverend William Barber of North Carolina led a prayer of remembrance.
BARBER: To touch the memory of blood...
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: To touch the memory of blood...
BARBER: ...That was shed...
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: ...That was shed...
BARBER: ...On this bridge.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: ...On this bridge.
ELLIOTT: There were 600 marchers 50 years ago. Yesterday, police estimate some 70,000 people made the symbolic journey. They lined up for blocks and waited patiently for hours for their turn to walk over the bridge.
UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: We love this.
ELLIOTT: The sheer size of the crowds overwhelmed organizers of the annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee. People didn't wait for dignitaries who typically lead the reenactment. Instead, independent groups led their own chants or songs as they paraded through downtown Selma.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) I'm going to let it shine. This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine.
ELLIOTT: This year's half-century mark seemed as much about renewing a spirit of activism as it was about remembering the sacrifices of the foot soldiers who fought for equality.
BARBER: Stand up.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Stand up.
BARBER: Fight forward.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Fight forward.
BARBER: Don't go back.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Don't go back.
BARBER: And Lord...
ELLIOTT: It was a meaningful day for 26-year-old Keyshia Cole of Ferguson, Miss., who has taken to the streets in her hometown after Michael Brown's shooting death. She says crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge does something to your spirit.
KEYSHIA COLE: This right here is empower. You see all of these people. At the end of the day, we're all here for the same thing. Black, white, Indian, all different races, creeds and religions, we came together for one thing.
ELLIOTT: To stand for justice. For Cole, Selma is both touchstone and wake-up call.
COLE: We have to realize where our people have brought us and where they dropped the ball so we don't drop the ball at the same place. We have to pick up the baton and keep it moving so that when we pass our baton off, we won't be singing the same sorry songs of yesterday.
ELLIOTT: Cole is with a group of Ferguson protesters who joined in yesterday's march.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
COLE: We have nothing to lose but our chains.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: We have nothing to lose but our chains.
ELLIOTT: Pastor Corie Bush is a leader of the Ferguson group. She says for them, being in Selma is coming full circle.
CORIE BUSH: You know, even though we weren't here the first time around, but reading it, hearing about it and then feeling like you've experienced some of it, even though it was not the exact same thing. But it was, you know. So being able to say, well, the things that happen to them 50 years ago, you know, we've experienced those things as well. But it's 50 years later, and we would expect things to be better.
ELLIOTT: Bush and David Ragland have been working with leaders of the Selma movement to get young protesters nonviolent training. Ragland says black lives matter is the rallying cry of today's civil rights movement.
DAVID RAGLAND: It means that no matter how we look and how we dress, our lives are just as valuable and that's what human dignity means as well.
ELLIOTT: It was a chant heard often during yesterday's march.
BARBER: Black lives matter.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Black lives matter.
BARBER: All lives matter.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: All lives matter.
BARBER: Back to the...
ELLIOTT: Commemorative events resume today with a five-day trip to retrace the Selma to Montgomery voting rights march. That happened after protesters won federal protection to complete their journey. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Montgomery. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.