By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
SELMA, Ala. – During the 55th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” Democratic presidential candidates came to commemorate the famous civil rights moment and win over black voters, with some being welcomed with wider arms than others.
Former Vice President Joe Biden and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg both gave speeches to the Brown Chapel AME Church congregation, but the difference in their reception was noticeable.
Biden already had a home field advantage with Alabama’s top two Democrats, U.S. Sen. Doug Jones and U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, who already publicly endorsed him, giving him two rousing introductions.
Bloomberg spoke about his relationship with activist Rev. Al Sharpton, who was also in attendance. But while he was speaking, a number of people in the crowd stood up and faced away from Bloomberg, turning their backs on him in protest.
In his courting of African American voters in Alabama and other southern states, Bloomberg has criticism about his past support for the controversial stop-and-frisk policy during his time as mayor. His campaign has advertised heavily in the state and Bloomberg won the coveted endorsement of the Alabama Democratic Conference, the African American wing of the state party whose get-out-the-vote effort on Election Day can be decisive.
In a February, poll for Alabama Daily News conducted by Mason-Dixon Strategy and Polling, asked registered voters who’d they choose, if the November presidential election were today, Fifty-eight percent of respondents said they’d choose President Donald Trump, 38% said Biden. Bloomberg did slightly better in the poll, with 40% of respondents saying they’d vote for him in a contest with Trump. Trump still led with 54%.
A total of 625 registered Alabama voters were interviewed live by telephone statewide. The margin for error is no more than plus. or minus 4 percentage points.
Coming off his primary win in South Carolina Saturday, it was easy for Biden to energize the crowd that was mainly made up of African Americans. His speech’s main message was the importance of working toward progress instead of wishing for the past.
“The moral arch of history is easy to celebrate, but the truth is a lot more complicated,” Biden said. “The truth is it’s five years later and we’ve been dragged backwards and we’ve lost ground. We’ve seen all too clearly that if you give hate any breathing room, it comes back.”
“… Here in Brown Chapel, there’s no more powerful reminder for what’s at stake and what we’re fighting for,” Biden said. “Not to go back to some nostalgic time that never existed, not to just go back to where we were five years ago but to propel this nation forward, beyond where we were five years ago. To build a more perfect union.”
Both candidates stressed the importance of restoring and preserving voting rights, with Bloomberg referencing Stacey Abrams, who was sitting just behind him, and her Georgia gubernatorial race in 2018.
“The voter suppression that ended under President Johnson’s signing of the Voters Rights Act did not actually end it,” Bloomberg said. “If it had, Stacey Abrams would be governor.”
Brown Chapel AME Church was the gathering point for civil rights foot soldiers during “Bloody Sunday” and the subsequent march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 to protest voter suppression in Alabama.
The march would later inspire the enactment of the Voting Rights Act that passed that same year.
Jones, whose Senate seat is one of the most at risk this election year, stressed to the crowd the importance of voter turnout.
“If one citizen is unwilling to participate, all of us are going to suffer,” Jones said.
He spoke about the social divisiveness of American politics today and the growing tensions of the “us vs. them” mentality spurred on by some politicians. He implored voters to tune out those kinds of divisive tactics.
“Folks, you know those dog whistle politics,” Jones said. “We need to be talking about one Alabama and talking about us, period.”
Other candidates who made an appearance at the event but did not speak were Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg who just hours later announced he was suspending his campaign.
U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who was one of the original foot soldiers beaten by police on “Bloody Sunday,” made a surprise appearance during the celebration and joined the candidates on the Edmund Pettus bridge for a few remarks.
“Speak up, speak out, get in the way,” Lewis said to a large gathering crowd. “Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America.”
Alabama’s primary is on Tuesday. Voters will not only get to vote on a Democratic presidential candidate, but Republican nominee to face Jones in November.
Voters will decide between former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville, current U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, state Rep. Arnold Mooney, Stanley Adair and Ruth Page Nelson.