‘Bloody Sunday’ Commemoration Draws Democratic Candidates to Selma

SELMA, Ala. — Presidential candidates and prominent social justice activists descended on Alabama on Sunday to commemorate the anniversary of the brutal attack on civil rights marchers here in 1965, one of the most violent episodes in the struggle for black participation in democracy.

A who’s who of political figures, including five Democratic presidential candidates, were marking the occasion, nearly 55 years after the day that became known as Bloody Sunday. Representative John Lewis of Georgia, 80, who announced in December that he had advanced pancreatic cancer, arrived on Sunday for a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Mr. Lewis, who was 25 when his skull was fractured in the 1965 attack, told a crowd thronging him that they could help “redeem the soul of America.”

“We were beaten, we were tear-gassed. I thought I was going to die on this bridge. But somehow and some way, God almighty helped me here,” Mr. Lewis said. “We cannot give up now. We cannot give in. We must keep the faith, keep our eyes on the prize. We must go out and vote like we never, ever voted before.”

The day before the ceremonies, South Carolina’s heavily black electorate shook up the Democratic race and handed former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. a decisive victory in the state’s primary.

With several other Southern states set to vote this week on Super Tuesday, including Alabama, Mr. Biden’s rivals are looking to cut into his apparent advantages with black voters, who may give him an inside track to delegates in key states.

But Sunday was also a time for reflection, as the candidates tailored their remarks to match the event’s tone of somber remembrance.

On March 7, 1965, Alabama state troopers and Sheriff Jim Clark’s posse attacked hundreds of demonstrators as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge while trying to march from Selma to Montgomery. The confrontation turned national attention to the civil rights struggle in the South and laid the groundwork for the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

During an early afternoon service on Sunday, people gathered at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, the starting point for the 1965 march. Two Democratic candidates, Mr. Biden and former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, addressed the congregation. Stacey Abrams, the Georgia Democrat and voting rights activist who has often been mentioned as a potential vice-presidential candidate, delivered a keynote speech.

Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., were scheduled to join the events later in the day. Tom Steyer, who ended his campaign Saturday, was also attending.

But even amid the rhetoric of unity and togetherness against the common enemy of racism, the realities of the Democrats’ increasingly contentious primary battle were never far away. Mr. Biden was treated as a conqueror after the best 24 hours of his campaign, with mobs of well-wishers and supporters crowding him as he entered the church building.

He had a spot on the dais, next to Representative Terri Sewell, Democrat of Alabama, and not far from the Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights activist, as well as Ms. Abrams and church clergy. Ms. Sewell, who has endorsed Mr. Biden, introduced him.

And while Mr. Bloomberg spoke about his admiration for the civil rights movement and his plans for the future, a number of people stood and turned their backs. Mr. Biden, meanwhile, received constant affirmations throughout his remarks as he denounced white supremacy.

“Donald Trump has showed us the side of humanity that has no sense of compassion,” Mr. Biden said.

“Say it, Biden!” someone cried out.

“Doesn’t understand who we are!” Mr. Biden continued. “Doesn’t understand anything about why we go to church. Because we believe! We believe that we have an obligation to our brothers and sisters.”

Mr. Biden and Mr. Bloomberg are competing for support among moderate voters here in Alabama and across the states that vote on Super Tuesday, and Mr. Bloomberg has racked up a number of endorsements that many political observers had expected would go to Mr. Biden. Following Mr. Biden’s blowout win in South Carolina, his advisers are hoping that the former vice president will have enough momentum to overcome the gains Mr. Bloomberg has made.

Earlier, at a breakfast in Selma, Mr. Bloomberg offered a pitch for how he would help black Americans as president, emphasizing the need to reduce the wealth gap between black and white families.

“How can we have a society where we say everybody’s equal, where the Constitution says that everybody’s equal, when you have that kind of disparity?” Mr. Bloomberg said as he noted that the average black family’s wealth was only a fraction of the average white family’s wealth. “Well, we can sit around and wring our hands, but I am determined to do something about it.”

Mr. Bloomberg laid out three goals: helping a million black families buy homes, doubling the number of black-owned businesses and helping black families triple their wealth.

Reid J. Epstein, Katie Glueck and Thomas Kaplan contributed reporting.

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