SELMA, Ala. — Oprah Winfrey, fellow actors from the movie Selma and hundreds of others marched to recall one of the bloodiest chapters of the civil rights movement on Sunday, the eve of the national holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr.
The remembrance comes after several incidents in which unarmed black men were killed by police in recent months, spurring protests and heightening tensions around the country.
In Ferguson, Missouri, where one fatal shooting caused weeks of violent protests, leading black members of Congress pressed for further reforms of the criminal justice system in the name of equality.
Eight members of the Congressional Black Caucus joined U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay at Wellspring United Methodist Church in Ferguson as they took up King’s legacy in light of the recent deaths.
“We need to be outraged when local law enforcement and the justice system repeatedly allow young, unarmed black men to encounter police and then wind up dead with no consequences,” said Clay, a St. Louis Democrat. “Not just in Ferguson, but over and over again across this country.”
In Selma, Winfrey marched with Selma director Ava DuVernay, actor David Oyelowo, who portrayed King in the movie, and the rapper Common. Winfrey was a producer on the film and had an acting role like Common. They marched to Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, where civil rights protesters were beaten and tear-gassed in 1965.
“Every single person who was on that bridge is a hero,” Winfrey told the marchers before they walked up the bridge as the sun went down over the Alabama River. Common and John Legend performed their Oscar-nominated song “Glory” from the film as marchers crested the top of the bridge amid the setting sun.
Winfrey said the marchers remember “Martin Luther King as an idea, Selma as an idea and what can happen with strategy, with discipline and with love.”
Winfrey played the civil rights activist Annie Lee Cooper in the movie, which was nominated for two Oscars, in categories of best picture and best original song.
“The idea is that hope and possibility is real,” Winfrey said afterward of the civil rights movement in Selma.
“Look at what they were able to do with so little, and look at how we now have so much. If they could do that, imagine what now can be accomplished with the opportunity through social media and connection, the opportunity through understanding that absolutely we are more alike than we are different.”
Selma chronicled the campaign leading up to the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and the subsequent passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Law enforcement officers used clubs and tear gas on March 7, 1965 — Bloody Sunday — to rout marchers intent on walking some 50 miles to Montgomery, the Alabama capital, to seek the right for blacks to register to vote. A new march, led by King, started March 21 of that year and reached Montgomery days later with the crowd swelling to 25,000.
Today, the Selma bridge and adjoining downtown business district look much as they did in 1965, though many storefronts are empty and government buildings are occupied largely by African-American officials who are beneficiaries of the Voting Rights Act.
“Fifty years ago Selma made history and changed the nation,” Selma Mayor George Evans said.
Onlookers in the crowd waved signs reading: “March On” and “VOTE.”
Lisa Stevens brought her two children, ages 6 and 10, so they could walk the bridge that King walked.
“I wanted to bring my children here so they can know their history and for them to participate in this walk,” said Stevens, who moved recently from New York to Greensboro, Alabama.
“It’s a part of their history and I think that they should know. Being that we’re in the South now I want them to understand everything that is going on around them,” she said.
McLinda Gilchrist, 63, said the movie should help a younger generation understand life for those in the 1960s who opposed racial discrimination. “They treated us worse than animals,” Gilchrist said.
“It was terrifying,” recalled Lynda Blackmon Lowery, who still lives in Selma and was the youngest person to march there in 1965 as a teenager.
Now a 64-year-old mother and grandmother, she spoke Jan. 18 in New York of a harrowing experience of unarmed marchers going up against rifles, billy clubs and fierce dogs of white officers. She has since written a memoir, “Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom.”
Other King events planned for the Jan. 19 federal holiday include a wreath-laying in Maryland, a tribute breakfast in Boston and volunteer service activities by churches and community groups in Illinois. In South Carolina, civil rights leaders readied for their biggest rally of the year.
And in Georgia, King’s legacy also was being celebrated at the church he pastored in Atlanta. The current pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, said the annual King holiday is a time when “all of God’s children are busy spreading the message of freedom and justice.”
In the Jan. 18 sermon, Professor James Cone of New York’s Union Theological Seminary urged Ebenezer’s congregation to celebrate the slain civil rights leader “by making a political and a religious commitment to complete his work of justice.” He closed the service by leading singing of the civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.”
By Kim Chandler. AP writers Verena Dobnik in New York, Alan Schere Zagier in Ferguson, Missouri, and AP Radio Religion Editor Steve Coleman in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report