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Special Event

President Clinton Speaks at 35th Anniversary Ceremony For Selma to Montgomery Civil Rights March

Aired March 5, 2000 - 2:53 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

GENE RANDALL, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Gene Randall in Washington. We are going to Selma, Alabama, now, where President Clinton is attending the 35th anniversary ceremony for a civil rights march that turned into bloodshed, became a watershed event in the history of voting rights in this country. Just introduced, Coretta Scott King, widow of the slain civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

CORETTA SCOTT KING, WIDOW OF MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: Thank you. Thank all of you for your presence here today, and I want to thank Attorney Sanders and Mrs. Rose Sanders, Mrs. Rose Sanders who had the vision to establish the Voting Rights Museum along with her husband, Attorney Sanders, and for hosting this jubilee bridge crossing ceremony. We are greatly indebted to both of you for your dedication and your courage and leadership which you are providing to make democracy real for all people in the Black Belt of Alabama, especially those who have been left behind.

President Clinton, I come from Alabama and on the outskirts of the Black Belt, and I want to say how proud I feel as everyone does here today that you have come to visit Selma and the Black Belt, and this large gathering is a testimony to the appreciation of the people who have struggled here for so long, as the first sitting president that has been said to visit here, thank you so very much.

(APPLAUSE)

KING: Our secretary of the interior, Mr. Bruce Babbitt, the secretary of transportation, Mr. Rodney Slater, secretary of labor, Alexis Herman, Ambassador Andrew Young, Ambassador Sheila Shululu (ph), who is ambassador from the South Africa -- from South Africa to the United States, who is out there in the audience, we thank you for coming all of the way here, Congressman John Lewis, the United States Congress delegation, the National Park Service director Robert Stanton (ph), Mr. Douglas Tanner (ph) of the Faith and Politics Institute, Martin Luther King III and the SCLC, family to Reverend Jesse Jackson, Mrs. Juanita Abernathy (ph), who is here today with us, to Mr. Josea (ph) Williams, and to all of the veterans of the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, other distinguished guests and friends, it is a great privilege and a pleasure and even an honor to take part in this 35th anniversary commemoration of the crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the beginning of the voting rights march.

Mr. President, your presence here today acknowledges the final contribution of the march for voting rights to American democracy. It is indeed gratifying that the president of the United States understands the importance of what happened here 35 years ago and of recognizing all of those who made the courageous sacrifices that produced the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

We commemorate Bloody Sunday with a sense of solemnity and remembrance of those who paid the ultimate price for our freedom during the historic campaign. Yet we also celebrate the launching of the march for voting rights with a sense of pride, because in a very real sense this march which led directly to the passage of the Voting Rights Act was the campaign that made democracy a reality for millions of disenfranchised Americans.

Before John Lewis and Reverend Josea Williams led the marchers across this bridge, there were only a few hundred black elected officials in the entire nation. Today, there are more than 9,000 because of the voting rights campaign, but we still have a long way to go to achieve political parity, and in this election year it is absolutely critical that we mobilize the largest turnout of African- American voters in history. Come on, don't you believe that?

(APPLAUSE)

KING: This is the best way for us to pay tribute to the spirit of Selma to Montgomery -- the Selma to Montgomery march, and if we fail to meet this challenge we can be sure that our struggle to fulfill the dream will face years of obstruction, but if we succeed we will be able to advance the day when the United States of America and the beloved community of Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream are one in the same.

(APPLAUSE)

KING: Thirty-five years ago, I was in San Francisco performing a freedom concert to raise funds for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference when the news of Bloody Sunday reached me. I was told that some people had been seriously hurt as they attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Of course, I was deeply disturbed, thinking that my husband might have been one of them. I later learned that the Reverend John Lewis and the Reverend Josea Williams were among those who were seriously injured.

I will never forget the television and newspaper photos of Reverend Josea Williams and Reverend John Lewis standing courageously at the front of the march when the state troopers attacked them, and this same courage has been the watch word associated with John Lewis throughout his distinguished career.

John Lewis came from humble roots as the son of sharecroppers in Pike County, Alabama. As a young man, I think he was chosen by God for leadership. During his college years his conscience wouldn't let him just be a good student and quietly prepare for a successful career, so he began to organize sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters in Nashville, and he emerged as one of the most courageous and important student leaders of the American civil rights movement. John never let the threat of violence deter him from honoring the dictates of his conscience. He was there in 1961 when the Freedom Riders were attacked and brutally assaulted by racist mobs.

As chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, John was also one of the planners of the great march on Washington and at the age of 23 was the youngest speaker to address the audience on that historic day, August 28, 1963. He was there in 1964 organizing SNCC's voter registration and community action programs during the Mississippi Freedom Summer Campaign, and he was here in Selma in 1965 alongside Reverend Josea Williams leading 525 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and was viciously assaulted by state troopers on Bloody Sunday. But always, John Lewis practiced his discipline non- violence and his courageous example inspired many more to do the same.

Having endured more than 40 arrests in non-violent protests along with numerous attacks and serious injuries, John is one of the most experienced and dedicated veterans of the civil rights movement. He has also served as director of the Voter Education Project, adding 4 million minorities to the voter rolls, and a national director of action in the Federal Agency -- Federal Volunteer Agency. He was elected to the Atlanta City Council in 1981 and in 1986 was elected to the United States House of Representatives. In 1998, he was elected to his seventh term in the House.

Finally, John Lewis embodies the spirit of courage, self sacrifice, and dedication to justice and equality that empowered the civil rights movement. With dignity, humility, and passionate commitment to non-violence and human rights for all people, he has devoted his life to the ongoing movement to make Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream a reality.

Ladies and gentlemen, will you please welcome one of America's greatest heroes, the honorable John L. Lewis.

(APPLAUSE)

REP. JOHN LEWIS (D-GA): Thank you, Mrs. King, for that warm introduction. I consider you one of the founding mothers of the new America. Thank you for your hard work, thank you for keeping your eyes on the prize. I am delighted and pleased to be here today. I have been to Selma many times. I was here on March 7th, 1965. I am here today with many friends. I never come to Selma alone. I for years brought someone to this hallowed place in history. Today, I have come with a delegation from Congress. We have brought our spouses, our children, our staff members, and special friends such as the South African ambassador to the United States and Mrs. Ethel Kennedy. Will all members of Congress in our delegation over here and the ambassador and Mrs. Kennedy all stand.

(APPLAUSE)

LEWIS: Congressman Amory Houghton of New York and I as co-chair of Faith and Politics first began this congressional civil rights journey in 1998. Now, three years later we not only have over 150 participants, we have the president of the United States of America. I am deeply moved by those who have been chosen to remember -- who have chosen to remember Bloody Sunday, March 7th, 1965. We must never, we must never ever forget the sacrifice of men and women who put their bodies on the line for freedom and equality. We must look at Selma the same way we look at Concord, Appommatox and Lexington.

In Selma in 1965, only 2.1 percent of blacks of voting age were registered to vote. We came here to protest an unjust system of denying blacks the right to vote and we met people who did not want us here. They called us troublemakers, they called us outside agitators. Thirty-five years ago, brave men and women, even children, were willing to walk into hell's fire. We assembled at Brown Chapel AME Church and silently walked through the streets of Selma. The air thick with tension, people turned at us and called us names, but we continued to walk.

We walked to the apex of this bridge, we stopped and realized we could not turn back and when we looked ahead we saw a sea of blue, Alabama state troopers, and a posse of men deputized by Sheriff Jim Clark. As we moved forward, Major Jim Clark yelled, he said it out very loud, "This is an unlawful march and it will not be allowed to continue. You have three minutes to disperse and return to your church." Next we heard him say, "Troopers advance." They stampede us with whips, nightsticks, and horses. They tear gassed us, they turned our non-violent protest into blood.

Today, when you walk arm and arm across this bridge no one will beat us. No one will turn us and call us names. They -- no one will lose their life for the precious right to vote. History had tracked us down to this moment, history remind us that on March 7th, 1965, we loved America so dearly we were ready to die for her. Like the bridge at Lexington, this bridge is a hallowed background, because blood was shedded for our sacred value, freedom and equality.

Mr. President, my friend, when your predecessor Abraham Lincoln was called upon to dedicate another piece of sacred ground, he reminded us that it had already been dedicated, it had already been consecrated far beyond our human power to air under trite (ph). And so it is in Selma, we cannot consecrate this ground, but we can desecrate it. We can desecrate it when we failed to register and get out and vote. We desecrate it when we allow casual bigotry or easy prejudice to creep into our hearts. We desecrate it when we answer hate with hate, when we return violence with violence. We desecrate it when we forget the blood that was shed here and the tears that were shed everywhere.

For here, Mr. President, men and women, and yes, young children, countless, priceless, faceless, nameless, but never soulless, purchased our freedom with their blood. Their freedom was not a concept, it was a concrete reality and a voter card. And every time anyone of us failed to exercise that right, you abandon thus to the tears and blood of this bridge. For the opposite of love is not just hate, but rather indifference, and so our vow today is to care, to love to live free and to vote. Mr. President, you are my friend, you are our brothers in the struggle to redeem the very soul of America. Mr. President, you are also the leader of the free world, you did not have to come here today, but you did, thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

LEWIS: Thank you, Mr. President. You have never shied away from confronting the demons of our collective past. What happened in Selma on Bloody Sunday was a sad and dark hour in our history. The president of the United States could not come here in 1965, but he has come here today. You have come not just to talk, but to walk across this bridge. This president not only talks the talk, but he will walk the walk.

(APPLAUSE)

LEWIS: Mr. President, America needs you at this hour, this hour when we pay tribute to non-violent soldiers who fought for a better America. We are here to be inspired and to be renewed, and we are here to restore or faith in our dream for a new America. Today we will walk, today we will walk shoulder to shoulder and hand in hand, heart to heart with the president of the United States.

Today, we men, and women, and children, black, brown, and white -- today we will walk across this bridge to a better America. On this day in 1965, the eyes of the nation were on Selma, so it is again today. I ask you to turn your eyes onward to the bridges we must cross in every hamlet, in every village, in every town, in every city, and in every state. We all are Selma. We are Selma. We have come a mighty long way. Let us summon the strength of those who have walked this bridge before us and move forward toward to a new America.

It is now my high honor to extend all of you in Selma, to Alabama, to the South, to America, William Jefferson Clinton, the president of the United States of America.

(APPLAUSE)

WILLIAM J. CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you, thank you. This is a day the Lord has made for this very purpose. Congressman Lewis, Mrs. King, Reverend Jackson, Reverend Harris, Congressman Houghton and Congressman Hilliard, and all the members of Congress who are here, I thank all the members of my administration who are here, especially Harris Walfort (ph), the head of our AmeriCorp Program, who was here with you 35 years ago today. I thank young Antoine Grove (ph). Didn't he give a fine speech?

(APPLAUSE)

CLINTON: When he was speaking, John leaned over to me and said, "You know, I used to give a speech like that when I was young."

I thank Senator Sanders and Rose Sanders for the work they are doing with this magnificent Voting Rights Museum.

(APPLAUSE)

CLINTON: And I thank Joe Lowery (ph), and Andy Young, and Julian Bond, and all the others who have come here to be with us. And I thank you, Josea Williams, and Mrs. Boynton (ph), and Mrs. Foster, and Mrs. Brown, and Mr. Doyle, and Reverend Hunter, all the heroes of the movement from that day, those here on this platform and those in the audience.

(APPLAUSE)

CLINTON: I bring you greetings from three of my partners, the first lady, Hillary, and Vice President and Mrs. Gore, who wish they could be here today.

(APPLAUSE)

CLINTON: I thank Ambassador Sisulu for joining us. I thank Governor Siegelman for making us feel welcome. And I think Mayor Smitherman for the long road he, too, has traveled in these last 35 years.

Now let me say to you a few things. I come today as your president, and also as a child of the South. The only thing that John Lewis said I disagree with is that I could have chosen not to come. That is not true. I had to be here in Selma today.

(APPLAUSE)

CLINTON: Thirty-five years ago, a single day in Selma become a seminal moment in the history of our country. On this bridge, America's long march to freedom met a roadblock of violent resistance, but the marchers, thank God, would not take a detour on the road to freedom. By 1965, their will had already been steeled by triumph and tragedy, but the breaking of the color line in Old Miss', the historic march on Washington, the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and President Kennedy, the bombing deaths of four little black girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, the Mississippi Freedom Summer, the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

On this Bloody Sunday, about 600 foot soldiers, some of whom thankfully remain with us today, absorbed with uncommon dignity the unbridled force of racism, putting their lives on the lines for that most basic American right, the simple right to vote, a right which already had been long guaranteed and long denied. Here in Dallas County, there were no black elected officials, because only 1 percent of voting age blacks, about 250 people, were registered. They were keep from the polls not by their own indifference or alienation, but by systematic exclusion, by the poll tax, by intimidation, by literacy testing that even the testers themselves could not pass.

(APPLAUSE)

CLINTON: And they were kept away from the polls by violence. It must be hard for the young people in this audience to believe, but just 35 years ago, Americans both black and white lost their lives in the voting rights crusade, some died in Selma and Marion. One of the reasons I came here today is to say to the families and those who remember Jimmy Lee Jackson, Reverend James Reeb, Biolo Lausu (ph), and others whose names we may never know, we honor them for the patriots they were.

(APPLAUSE) CLINTON: They did not die in vain. Just one week after Bloody Sunday, President Johnson spoke to the nation in stirring words, he said, "At times, history and fate meet in a single time and a single place to shape a turning point in man's unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord, so it was a century ago at Appommatox, so it was last week in Selma, Alabama. Their cause must be our cause."

Two weeks after Bloody Sunday, emboldened by their faith in God and the support of a white Southerner in the Oval Office, Doctor King led 4,000 people across the Pettus Bridge on the 54-mile trek to Montgomery. And six months later, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, proclaiming that "the vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible laws which imprison men because they are different from other men." It is been said that the Voting Rights Act was signed in ink in Washington, but it first was signed in blood in Selma.

(APPLAUSE)

CLINTON: Those who walked by faith across this bridge led us all to a better tomorrow. In 1964, there were only 300 black elected officials nationwide and just three African-Americans in the Congress. Today, those numbers have swelled to nearly 9,000 black elected officials and 39 members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Today, African-Americans hold the majority in Selma City Council and School Board, because the number of African-American registered voters in Dallas County has risen from 250 to more than 20,000.

There's another point I want to make today, just as Dr. King predicted, the rise of black Southerners to full citizenship also lifted their white neighbors. "It is history's rye paradox," he said, "that when Negroes win their struggle to be free, those who have held them down will themselves be free for the first time."

(APPLAUSE)

CLINTON: After Selma, free white and black Southerners crossed a bridge to the new South, leaving hatred and isolation the far side, building vibrant cities, thriving economies and great universities, a new South still enriched by the old-time religion and rhythms and rituals we all love now opened to all things modern and people of all races and faiths from all over the world, a new South in which whites have gained at least as much as blacks from the march to freedom. Without Selma, Atlanta would never have had the Super Bowl or the Olympics.

(APPLAUSE)

CLINTON: And without Selma, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton would never have been elected president of the United States.

(APPLAUSE)

CLINTON: The advance of freedom and opportunity has taken our entire nation a mighty long way. We begin the new millennium with great prosperity and the lowest levels of African-American and Hispanic unemployment ever recorded, with greater diversity in all walks of life, and a cherished role in helping those beyond our borders to overcome their own racial and ethnic and tribal and religious conflicts. We have built that bridge to the 21st century we can all walk across. We come here today to say we could not have done it if brave Americans had not first walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

(APPLAUSE)

CLINTON: Yes, we have come a mighty long way, but our journey is not over, for despite our unprecedented prosperity and real social progress, there are still wide and disturbing disparities that fall along the color line in health, in income, in educational achievement, and perceptions of justice. My fellow Americans, there are still bridges yet to cross. As long as there are people in places, including neighborhoods here in Selma, that have not participated in our our economic prosperity, we have a bridge to cross.

As long as African-American income hovers at nearly half that of whites, we have another bridge to cross. As long as African-American and Hispanic children are more likely than white children to live in poverty and less likely to attend or graduate from college, we have another bridge to cross. As long as African-Americans and other minorities suffered three, three, even four times the rates of heart disease, AIDS, diabetes and cancer, we have another bridge cross.

As long as our children continue to die as the victims of mindless violence, we have another bridge to cross. As long as African-Americans and Latinos anywhere in America believe they are unfairly targeted by police because of the color of their skin, and police believe they are unfairly judged by their communities because of the color of their uniforms, we have another bridge to cross.

(APPLAUSE)

CLINTON: As long as the waving symbol of one American's pride is the shameful symbol of another American's pain, we have another bridge to cross. As long as the power of America's growing diversity remains diminished by discrimination and stained by acts of violence against people just because they black, or Hispanic, or Asian, or gay, or Jewish, or Muslim, as long as that happens to any American, we have another bridge to cross. And as long as less than half our eligible voters exercise the right that so many here in Selma marched and died for, we have a very large bridge to cross.

But the bridges are there to be crossed, they stand on the strong foundations of our Constitution. They were built by our forbearers through silent tears and weary years. They are waiting to take us to higher ground. Oh, yes, the bridges are built. We can see them clearly, but to get to the other side we, too, will have to march. I ask you to remember Dr. King's words. "Human progress never rolls on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God."

My fellow Americans, this day has a special meaning for me, for I, too, am a son of the South, the old segregated South. And those of you who marched 35 years ago set me free, too, on Bloody Sunday, free to know you, to work with you, to love you, to raise my child to celebrate our differences and hallow our common humanity. I thank you all for what you did here. Thank you, Andy, and Jesse, and Joe, for the lives you have lived since. Thank you, Coretta, for giving up your beloved husband and the blessings of a normal life.

(APPLAUSE)

CLINTON: Thank you, Ethel Kennedy, for giving up your beloved husband and the blessings of a normal life.

(APPLAUSE)

CLINTON: And thank you, John Lewis, for the beatings you took and the heart you kept wide open. Thank you for walking with the wind hand in hand with your brothers and sisters to hold America's trembling house down. Thank you for your vision of the beloved community, an America at peace with itself. I tell you all as long as Americans are willing to hold hands, we can walk with any wind, we can cross any bridge. Deep in my heart I do believe we shall overcome. Thank you and God bless you.

(APPLAUSE)

RANDALL: Today's event at Selma, Alabama, marks the 35th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights march in 1965. The climactic moment, of course, was Bloody Sunday, when marchers in Selma tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the march to Montgomery 50 miles away. It was a dark chapter in this country's history. It was also a watershed moment, credited with providing much of the strength for passage of the Voting Rights Bill of 1965.

I'm Gene Randall in Washington. We will take a break.

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