Commentary: Commemorating Selma

Commentary: Commemorating Selma

Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund recounts a historic weekend in Selma.

Published March 10, 2015

It would be impossible for me to express in words the nature of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery marches. It was at once inspiring, sobering, encouraging, challenging and awesome.

Without question, a highlight of the weekend was hearing President Obama speak at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Saturday. Ryan Haygood and I, along with Steve Ralston, former Legal Defense Fund attorney (who was on the team of attorneys who represented the Selma marchers) had the honor of walking to the top of the Edmund Pettus Bridge with the president and his family. We were led by 103-year-old Amelia Boynton who, along with Rep. John Lewis, shared brief reflections. If you use a magnifying glass, you can see me in a photo on the front page of the New York Times.

But the Legal Defense Fund’s Unity Reception on Saturday was the true highlight for me. This was a true group effort, and it came together beautifully, with original attorneys who represented the Selma marchers, including Alabama cooperating attorney Solomon Seay along with legendary Alabama voting activist Jerome Gray and former federal judge and civil rights icon U.W. Clemon. Their remarks were bookended with remarks (unplanned) by Leah Aden, a young LDF voting rights attorney describing for the audience why she has felt compelled to do this important work. Priceless.

The church sanctuary was packed, and we were gratified that so many young people were part of the audience. They were wonderful and fully engaged. Janai Nelson (our Associate Director-Counsel) led them in a great conversation in which the young people posed questions to all of us and expressed their gratitude to the stalwart civil rights lawyers. We didn't — couldn't — have choreographed the genuineness of the emotion, the excitement, the respectful interaction between older leaders and our future leaders.

The church was packed because of the hard work done by our lawyers, who spent Thursday handing out flyers and encouraging everyone in Selma to come to the event. I was especially touched to share an interview with my cousin, news anchor Gwen Ifill, outside the church, part of which aired on PBS NewsHour.

We posted on our website and on social media, a copy from our archives of the original Selma March order signed by then LDF Director-Counsel Jack Greenberg and filed with the court. We received so many comments from visitors to our social media account about the document — comments like "gave me chills,"  "amazing" and "unbelievable."

We spent Sunday morning (and a good part of the afternoon) at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, where Rev. Al Sharpton gave the sermon. Attorney General Eric Holder attended with his family and gave wonderful remarks. Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch also attended, as did Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. I was honored to be able to give brief remarks as well, along with other civil rights and faith leaders.

The march itself was the biggest it has ever been. It is estimated that 80,000 people were in attendance. Best of all was the focus on the need to amend the Voting Rights Act. Everyone was very much "on message" about the need to both celebrate and agitate. 

Now we hope to turn the energy from the weekend back to our work.

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 (Photo: AP Photo/Bill Frakes)

Written by Sherrilyn Ifill

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