SELMA, Ala. (AP) - This year's commemoration of a pivotal moment in the fight for voting rights for African Americans will honor four giants of the civil rights movement who lost their lives in 2020, including the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis.
Organizers on Monday announced plans for the March 7 celebration that is being conducted differently this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rev. Joseph Lowery, C.T. Vivian, attorney Bruce Boynton and Lewis will be honored during the 56th annual commemoration of Bloody Sunday, the day in 1965 that civil rights marchers were brutally beaten on Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Dr Martin Luther King Jr., arm in arm with Reverend Ralph Abernathy, leads marchers as they begin the Selma to Montgomery civil rights march from Brown's Chapel Church in Selma, Alabama, on March 21, 1965; (L-R) an unidentified priest and man, John L ((Photo by William Lovelace/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images))
The four will be honored during the Martin & Coretta King Unity Breakfast on March 7 in Selma. The breakfast will be held as a drive-in, and people will remain in their cars during the breakfast while speakers will address the crowd from a stage.
There will then be a "slow drive" across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and wreaths will be placed honoring the four, former state Sen. Hank Sanders said.
Sanders said the COVID-19 pandemic did not allow the four to have large funerals with the exception of Lewis, who was honored with events in Georgia, Alabama and Washington D.C. The former Georgia congressman was beaten during Bloody Sunday.
"This is lifting the people who were on the battlefield for a long time, starting in the 1950s and continuing all of their lives. ... Those of us who are still living, particularly the young, need to take up the challenge and go forward because there is still so much to be done," Sanders said.
Footage of the Bloody Sunday beatings helped galvanize support for passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This year's commemoration comes as some states seek to roll back expanded early and mail-in voting access and efforts have been unsuccessful to restore a key section of the Voting Rights Act that required states with a history of discrimination to get federal approval for any changes to voting procedures.
Bernard LaFayette, who worked with all four, will speak at the breakfast, Sanders said.
While much of the annual Bridge Crossing celebration will be virtual this year, Sanders said they wanted to have events that people could safely attend.
Lowery, a charismatic and fiery preacher, is often considered the dean of the civil rights veterans and led the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Vivian began organizing sit-ins against segregation in the 1940s and later joined forces with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1965, Vivian led dozens of marchers to a courthouse in Selma, confronting the local sheriff on the courthouse steps and telling him the marchers should be allowed to register to vote. The sheriff responded by punching Vivian in the head.
Boynton was arrested for entering the white part of a racially segregated bus station in Virginia, launching a chain reaction that ultimately helped to bring about the abolition of Jim Crow laws in the South. Boynton contested his conviction, and his appeal resulted in a U.S. Supreme Court decision that prohibited bus station segregation and helped inspire the Freedom Riders.