SELMA, Ala. (AP) — Democratic presidential candidate Cory Booker said Sunday the anniversary of the infamous "Bloody Sunday" attack on peaceful demonstrators for civil rights is a time to recommit to the fight for justice in America.
"It's time for us to defend the dream," Booker said in a keynote speech at Brown Chapel AME Church, which was the starting point of the 1965 march in Selma, Alabama. "It's time that we dare to dream again in America. That is what it takes to make America great. It is up to us to do the work that makes the dream real."
Joining Booker, a New Jersey senator, for events commemorating the march were two other 2020 hopefuls, Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sherrod Brown of Ohio. Also on hand was Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee in 2016. Booker and Brown, along with Clinton and civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, participated in a march Sunday afternoon across the city's Edmund Pettus Bridge. Sanders had left for a campaign event in Chicago.
Booker and Sanders have already announced their campaigns. Brown is still considering a White House bid. The three gathered for a unity breakfast in Selma, one of America's seminal civil rights sites, to pay homage to its legacy and highlight how civil rights shaped their personal narratives.
On March 7, 1965, Alabama state troopers beat peaceful demonstrators as they attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It was a moment that galvanized support for the passage of the Voting Rights Act later that year.
This year's commemoration came in the early days of a Democratic primary that has focused heavily on issues of race. Several candidates have called President Donald Trump a racist, while others have voiced support for the idea of reparations for the descendants of enslaved black Americans.
Booker has cast himself as a direct beneficiary of the civil rights era after his family was denied housing in a white neighborhood. In January, he traveled through Georgia with Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., an Alabama native and civil rights leader who was severely beaten at the bridge 54 years ago.
Brown, currently on a "Dignity of Work" tour inspired by King, returned to Selma for the fifth time. He frequently draws connections between civil rights and worker's rights. A former secretary of state in Ohio, Brown also has a reputation as a leader on expanding voter participation.
"We need to understand what happened here and we need to talk about it so we keep fighting on these issues," Brown told reporters at the breakfast. "It's clear we make progress and then we fall back because of Republican attacks on voting rights."
Claiming that the Georgia governor election was stolen from Democrat Stacey Abrams, Brown said: "It's not just a Southern issue, of course. In the north we see all kinds of changes in voting laws. We see suppression of the vote in 2016, purging of voters in my state in a big way. This fight continues. It's become personal in many ways because voting rights are so important to our country."
Sanders attended the 1963 March on Washington, which featured the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech. Sanders has highlighted his civil rights and activist background as a young man at the University of Chicago. He is working to strengthn his relationship with black voters, with whom he struggled to connect in the 2016 Democratic primary that Clinton won.
Clinton told those at Brown Chapel that the absence of crucial parts of the Voting Rights Act contributed to her 2016 loss to Trump. The Supreme Court in 2013 struck down a part of the law that required the Justice Department to scrutinize states with a history of racial discrimination in voting.
Clinton said "it makes a really big difference" and warned of the need for continued vigilance about voter suppression heading into the 2020 election.
The backdrop of Selma provides a spotlight on voting rights. Advocates say the gains achieved as a result of "Bloody Sunday" have been threatened in recent years, particularly by the 2013 Supreme Court decision.
Voter suppression emerged as a key issue in the 2018 midterm elections in states such as Georgia and North Carolina, where a Republican congressional candidate was accused of rigging the contest there through absentee ballots. House Democrats signaled they plan to make ballot access a priority in the new Congress, introducing legislation aimed at protecting voting rights in 2020 and beyond.
Whack is The Associated Press' national writer on race and ethnicity. Follow her work on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/emarvelous