About a hundred demonstrators gathered Saturday in Miami to commemorate the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” the day Alabama police confronted, beat and gassed voting-rights activists marching from Selma to Montgomery — and a seminal event that led to passage of the federal Voting Rights Act in August 1965.
The crowd was filled with representatives from various organizations, including local chapters of the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as well as the Dream Defenders of South Florida, the Florida New Majority and various local labor unions.
March 1965: Martin Luther King, center, leads a march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. In early 1965, King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference began a series of marches as part of a push for black voting rights.
As they marched from the Torch of Friendship in Downtown Miami into Overtown, demonstrators wore shirts saying “Selma is now” and “Selma is Miami,” and spoke out against developments such as the proposed Miami Worldcenter project, which has been criticized as unjust to the Overtown community. They also spoke out against police brutality and voter disenfranchisement.
“We don’t have to look to Alabama to see where there’s injustice,” said Gihan Perera, executive director of Florida New Majority. “We don’t have to look back 50 years to see injustice.”
The T-shirt slogans referenced a speech President Barack Obama had given the previous day at Benedict College, a historically black school in Columbia, South Carolina.
“Selma is now,” he told a group of students. “Selma is about the courage of ordinary people doing extraordinary things because they believe they can change the country, that they can shape our nation’s destiny. Selma is about each of us asking ourselves what we can do to make America better.”
One of the Miami march’s organizers, Elbert Garcia, said that many issues in South Florida are connected to voter education and protecting voters’ rights, and the anniversary of the Selma march gave them a great opportunity to get the message across.
“The power to vote is only one tool, but it is an important tool,” Garcia said.
Loreal Arscott, 32, president-elect of the Gwen S. Cherry Black Women Lawyers Association, agreed with Garcia’s point, and as she addressed the crowd she said more work needed to be done beyond Saturday’s march.
“After we leave this march today, what are you doing to further the cause?” Arscott said. “When was the last time your voice was heard? When will it be heard next?”
As Perera spoke, he asked for the younger members of the crowd to stand with him, but also paid respect to the older members that gathered. Among the older demonstrators was 90-year-old Eufaula Frazier, who did not march in Selma but watched the events unfold from Miami.
“I remember seeing those people crossing the bridge, and it was terrible,” Frazier said as she recalled the events of the first attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Fifty years ago, protesters in Alabama attempted to cross the bridge, but faced a police blockade as they exited Selma and were ordered to disperse. When they didn’t, state troopers and local law enforcement clubbed the marchers with nightsticks and sprayed them with tear gas. The events were broadcast on national television and radio and became known as “Bloody Sunday.”
Frazier, a community activist, said she’s seen change in Miami in the past 50 years, when many employment opportunities for black people were limited and tied mostly to the tourism industry, but she feels more can be done.
“I’ve seen changes made, but celebrating the march today, it reminds me of the struggle,” Frazier said. “Fifty years later our people are still distressed; we’re still at the bottom.”
As the crowd made its way from Downtown into Overtown, it stopped at the future Miami Worldcenter site, singing, chanting and holding signs reading “Hire Overtown” and “End Segregation.” The march eventually concluded at St. John Baptist Church.
Residents and activists have criticized the Worldcenter deal negotiated by Miami City Commissioner Keon Hardemon, which requires the developer to hire 30 percent of its unskilled workers from across Miami-Dade County and gives $88 million in property tax rebates to Worldcenter.
Critics think that jobs won’t last and that the deal is providing more benefit to the developers than to the community.
With the multiple groups advocating for various issues, Garcia said the organizers’ main goal was to give people a chance to feel connected to the commemorative events in Alabama and across the country, and to connect the past to the present.
“There’s still a huge group of people who can’t vote in Florida,” Garcia said. “And if you can’t vote in your representatives, then you can’t effect change.”