Democrats gather for 'Bloody Sunday' commemoration in Selma

SELMA, Ala. (AP) — Democratic presidential candidates gathered Sunday in this crucible of the civil rights movement to appeal for black support in a town where demonstrators were once beaten for marching for the right to vote.

Two days before the crucial Super Tuesday vote, themes of fighting voter suppression, providing the poor with a way up and defeating President Donald Trump took center stage at events marking the 55th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” when white police attacked black marchers in Selma, Alabama.

Just hours after strong support by black voters in South Carolina lifted Joe Biden to his first primary victory, the former vice president was set to speak during the morning worship at historic Brown Chapel AME Church, where former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg also planned to talk. The two split the endorsements of leading black political groups in Alabama, one of 14 states voting on Tuesday.

Those two candidates plus Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar and former Mayor Pete Buttigieg were scheduled to join marchers re-enacting the walk across the steel-arched Edmund Pettus Bridge that ended in mayhem decades ago. Tom Steyer also is attending despite suspending his campaign after a poor showing in South Carolina.

Rep. Terri Sewell, the lone black member of Alabama's congressional delegation, urged hundreds of people attending a community breakfast to vote for Biden and enable “a return to civility.”

“Joe Biden not only knows me, he knows you,” she said.

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Obama speaks at Selma 50th anniversary 2015 - Voting Rights Act
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Obama speaks at Selma 50th anniversary 2015 - Voting Rights Act
US President Barack Obama walks alongside Amelia Boynton Robinson (R), one of the original marchers, the Reverend Al Sharpton (2nd R), First Lady Michelle Obama (L), and US Representative John Lewis (2nd-L), Democrat of Georgia, and also one of the original marchers, across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to mark the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama, March 7, 2015. The event commemorates Bloody Sunday, when civil rights marchers attempting to walk to the Alabama capital of Montgomery to end voting discrimination against African Americans, clashed with police on the bridge. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama (7L), First Lady Michelle Obama (5L), former US President George W. Bush (5R), Laura Bush (6R), and US Representative John Lewis (6L), Democrat of Georgia and one of the original marchers, lead a walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to mark the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama, March 7, 2015. US President Barack Obama rallied a new generation of Americans to the spirit of the civil rights struggle, warning their march for freedom 'is not yet finished.' In a forceful speech in Selma, Alabama on the 50th anniversary of the brutal repression of a peaceful protest, America's first black president denounced new attempts to restrict voting rights. AFP PHOTO/ SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama walks alongside Amelia Boynton Robinson (2nd-R), one of the original marchers, First Lady Michelle Obama (L), and US Representative John Lewis (2nd-L), Democrat of Georgia, and also one of the original marchers, across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to mark the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama, March 7, 2015. The event commemorates Bloody Sunday, when civil rights marchers attempting to walk to the Alabama capital of Montgomery to end voting discrimination against African Americans, clashed with police on the bridge. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama hugs US Representative John Lewis, Democrat of Georgia, one of the original marchers at Selma, during an event marking the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 2015. Obama declared Saturday on the 50th anniversary of a savagely repressed civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, that it was a global inspiration for those fighting for freedom. 'From the streets of Tunis to the Maidan in Ukraine, this generation of young people can draw strength from this place, where the powerless could change the world's greatest superpower, and push their leaders to expand the boundaries of freedom,' he said. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
People listen during take photos at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 2015 in Selma, Alabama. US President Barack Obama marked the 50th anniversary of the Selma civil rights march on Saturday by condemning new attempts to restrict voting rights and demanding their protection be renewed. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama speaks at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 2015 in Selma, Alabama. Obama marked the 50th anniversary of the Selma civil rights march on Saturday by condemning new attempts to restrict voting rights and demanding their protection be renewed. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
A large group including US President Barack Obama cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 2015 in Selma, Alabama. Obama declared Saturday on the 50th anniversary of a savagely repressed civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, that it was a global inspiration for those fighting for freedom. 'From the streets of Tunis to the Maidan in Ukraine, this generation of young people can draw strength from this place, where the powerless could change the world's greatest superpower, and push their leaders to expand the boundaries of freedom,' he said. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
SELMA, AL - MARCH 07: (L-R) Former first lady Laura Bush, first lady Michelle Obama, U.S. president Barack Obama, U.S. Rep John Lewis (D-GA) and former U.S. president George W. Bush pray during a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the historic civil rights march on March 7, 2015 in Selma, Alabama. Selma is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the famed civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery that resulted in a violent confrontation with Selma police and State Troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama speaks at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 2015 in Selma, Alabama. Obama and the first family are in Selma to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when civil rights marchers attempting to walk to the Alabama capital of Montgomery to end voting discrimination against African Americans clashed with police. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
The motorcade of US President Barack Obama arrives at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 2015 in Selma, Alabama. Obama and the first family are in Selma to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when civil rights marchers attempting to walk to the Alabama capital of Montgomery to end voting discrimination against African Americans clashed with police. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama greet wellwishers after arriving on Air Force One at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, March 7, 2015. The First Family is traveling to Selma, Alabama to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when civil rights marchers attempting to walk to the Alabama capital of Montgomery to end voting discrimination against African Americans clashed with police. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Sasha Obama (L), Malia Obama (2nd L), and their grandmother, Marian Robinson (C), walk away from US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama after arriving on Air Force One at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, March 7, 2015. The First Family is traveling to Selma, Alabama to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when civil rights marchers attempting to walk to the Alabama capital of Montgomery to end voting discrimination against African Americans clashed with police. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
SELMA, AL - MARCH 07: People wait to hear U.S. president Barack Obama speak in front of the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 2015 in Selma, Alabama. Selma is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the famed civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery that resulted in a violent confrontation with Selma police and State Troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama gets out of an SUV as he walks to board Air Force One prior to departing from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, March 7, 2015. The First Family is traveling to Selma, Alabama to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when civil rights marchers attempting to walk to the Alabama capital of Montgomery to end voting discrimination against African Americans clashed with police. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Former US President George W. Bush arrives at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 2015 in Selma, Alabama. US President Barack Obama and the first family will visit Selma to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when civil rights marchers attempting to walk to the Alabama capital of Montgomery to end voting discrimination against African Americans clashed with police. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
A member of US Secret Service's Counter Assault Team walks on the North lawn of the White House in Washington, DC before US President Barack Obama departure to Selma, Alabama on March 7, 2015. The US Secret Service locked down the White House press room Saturday after a loud noise was heard as reporters gathered to await Obama's departure for Selma, Alabama, a pool report said. The Washington fire department reported a fire at a food cart near the White House and that its units had extinguished it. It was unclear if the fire was the source of the noise. AFP PHOTO/YURI GRIPAS (Photo credit should read YURI GRIPAS/AFP/Getty Images)
Police officers block Broad Street near the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 2015 in Selma, Alabama. US President Barack Obama and the first family will visit Selma to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when civil rights marchers attempting to walk to the Alabama capital of Montgomery to end voting discrimination against African Americans clashed with police. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
The Edmund Pettus Bridge is seen during sunset on March 6, 2015 in Selma, Alabama. The march from Selma to Montgomery, which US President Barack Obama will commemorate Saturday in the southern state of Alabama, was part of the plight to end voting discrimination against African Americans a half century ago. Obama will deliver remarks at Selma's famed Edmund Pettus Bridge, where some 600 peaceful voting rights activists were attacked as they marched on March 7, 1965, a day which became known as 'Bloody Sunday.' AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama (L) look on during an event marking the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, March 7, 2015. US President Barack Obama rallied a new generation of Americans to the spirit of the civil rights struggle, warning their march for freedom 'is not yet finished.' In a forceful speech in Selma, Alabama on the 50th anniversary of the brutal repression of a peaceful protest, America's first black president denounced new attempts to restrict voting rights. AFP PHOTO/ SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
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Alabama state troopers beat and tear-gassed hundreds of voting-rights demonstrators trying to march from Selma to Montgomery, the capital, on March 7, 1965. Only 25 at the time and years away from joining Congress, Rep. John Lewis led the marchers and was among the injured.

The confrontation both set the stage for the massive Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march led by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. weeks later and helped inspire passage of the Voting Rights Act later that year.

The years since have been tough on Selma, where shuttered businesses and vacant, dilapidated homes stand just blocks from magnificent antebellum mansions. The city and surrounding Dallas County typically have some of the highest jobless rates in the state.

The town’s population is steadily declining, and Census statistics show 41% of the estimated 17,800 people who remain live in poverty. About 82% of the town’s residents are black, and both schools and neighborhoods are mostly segregated by race with blacks attending public schools and whites attending private academies. Crime, much of it linked to gangs, is a constant problem, authorities say.

Selma Mayor Darrio Melton endorsed Biden as someone who could help.

“Joe understands the issues families in Selma and communities across the country face,” he said.

Located about 50 miles west of Montgomery, Selma has deep ties to both civil rights and the Civil War. Aside from being the site of Bloody Sunday, the Edmund Pettus Bridge is named for a Confederate general and U.S. senator who advocated for white supremacy.

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