SELMA, Ala. — Joanne Bland stood at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Sunday, her face reflecting the high emotions of the moment.

When she was 11, she had crossed the same span, joining civil rights stalwarts in a protest to end discrimination in the voting booth. But as she crossed, she witnessed vicious police attacks and fainted.

Two days later, a pastor from Uphams Corner in Boston was attacked in Selma and died from his injuries.

On Sunday, Bland returned to the Pettus Bridge and locked arms with members of a contingent from Boston who had made a 25-hour pilgrimage to memorialize that protest 50 years earlier, known as Bloody Sunday.


Shouting “Selma” and “Boston,” they took their first steps up the bridge’s slope, moving resolutely.

Thousands of people jammed the historic district of Selma on Sunday to mark the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, walking in solidarity and in peace. They came from Detroit and Atlanta, in charter buses and sedans, toting children in strollers and the elderly in wheelchairs. They hoisted banners, donned matching T-shirts, and carried the US flag.

State troopers clubbed civil rights marchers, including John Lewis (right), in Selma on March 7, 1965. Lewis would become a US legislator.
State troopers clubbed civil rights marchers, including John Lewis (right), in Selma on March 7, 1965. Lewis would become a US legislator.Associated Press/file

“I want him to learn his culture,’’ said Stephanie Beach, who had boarded a bus in Tennessee with her 6-year-old son and classmates from his Nashville charter school. “I wanted him to see how beautiful this is, in spite of what is shown in the media.”

The contingent from Boston, including students from the University of Massachusetts Boston, made their way up the bridge about 3 p.m. Earlier in the day, the group had stopped at a memorial for the Rev. James Reeb, who traveled to Selma from Uphams Corner half a century ago and died after being attacked on the Pettus Bridge.

The UMass Boston group had been in Selma for three days, soaking up history.


Late into Sunday afternoon, the bridge was blanketed with people. It seemed it would take an eternity to cross.

“We waited since Friday to cross this bridge,’’ said Tucker Gaye, one of the Boston students. “I didn’t think we’d cross.”

For Bland, it was an emotional prospect.

“When I was 11, men with sticks were waiting over this bridge to beat me. I hope there are no men over there to beat me now. I got back up this time,’’ said Bland, who has worked on voting rights initiatives with a Boston activist and who is the cofounder of the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute in Selma.

Sunday’s events capped four days of workshops, a jubilee, and speeches, including from President Obama and US Representative John Lewis, both of whom spoke Saturday and urged marchers to continue their fight.

Many participants began Sunday morning in religious services, listening to sermons and raising their heads to heaven in thankfulness for how far the United States has come.

“Only a sovereign God can take a bloody mess and make it redemptive,’’ said the Rev. Otis Culliver of Tabernacle Church, where former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick delivered the sermon.

In the historic district of Selma, it was somber and festive, righteous and redemptive. The smell of barbecue wafted through the air, and vendors sold T-shirts, jewelry, and makeup. Nearby, at Ray’s Bar B Que Sandwich Shop — where you can get a haircut and a hamburger — they watched the events on television.


On Broad Street, Adrian Stowe, a former Dorchester resident who now lives in Charlotte, N.C., said he has attended the jubilee during Bloody Sunday anniversaries over the past three years. This was the biggest crowd he had seen.

He sold T-shirts with messages such as “Black Lives Matter’’ and the insignia of black fraternities. This year is special, he was saying in the bright afternoon.

When his mother was 18, she was on her way to the 1965 Selma march. But her father, worried about their safety, turned the car home and headed back to North Carolina.

A Boston group that included UMass students embraced Joanne Bland of Selma, Ala., who marched in 1965.
A Boston group that included UMass students embraced Joanne Bland of Selma, Ala., who marched in 1965.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

She never returned to Selma, until this weekend.

“She is here now,’’ Stowe said.

At 16, A’Leeyah Ponder has only read about the events of Bloody Sunday. She and her family drove from Atlanta to cross the bridge Sunday. Clutching a poster on voters’ rights, Ponder said she wanted to be in Selma to make a statement to other teenagers that their forebears’ quest for equal rights is not over.

“This is real. It’s not a movie,’’ she said, in reference to Hollywood’s recent depiction of the historic event.

As the crowd climbed the bridge, the sun blazed and voices lifted skyward.

“What do we want!’’ shouted a member of Comite Popular de Knoxville, a Tennessee group advocating for immigration reform.

“Justice,’’ the others shouted back.

“We come in solidarity with all African-Americans,’’ explained Emma Cosigua, a 52-year-old Guatemalan-American.

She said members of the group recently had seen the movie “Selma” and were inspired to come to Alabama.


“We thought about our struggle as immigrants and what we are going through,’’ Cosigua said. “We want jobs. We want opportunities for our families. We want a better life.”

Edwyn Shoemaker, a UMass Lowell graduate who was among those traveling from Massachusetts, said he came for inspiration. As a biracial young man who spent his first 18 years in foster care, he often feels like he does not belong.

“I’m not white enough for whites, and I’m not black enough for blacks. I’m part Haitian, but I’m not Haitian enough because I don’t speak Creole,’’ he said. “Sometimes, I feel like I’m a soldier without a fight.”

Since arriving in Selma, he said, he has been trying to absorb history, trying to build connections, trying to build on efforts he started that aim to help others too old to remain in foster care. And so he walked up the bridge.

As Ricki Faust made her way up the bridge, she said she could not help but think of the others who followed the same path.

“I’m really thankful for what my ancestors did,’’ she said. “I want to go back and say thank you’’ to them.

As he made the final steps of his journey over the bridge, the Rev. Ron Bell choked back tears as he recounted the importance of the Boston to Selma Pilgrimage.

“It was Dr. King who said it was a glorious day, and that’s what this is in the end: glorious,’’ said Bell, who helped to organize the trip with the aim of helping to further galvanize young people to continue the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.


The crossing was not easy. Instead of walking, people shuffled across in a grueling heat, packed shoulder to shoulder.

At the top of the span, participants began singing the old civil rights song “We Shall Overcome.”

Soon, the crowd began to break, and the marchers made it to the other side.

They jumped for joy, bumped their fists, gave each other high-fives.

“We made it,’’ they screamed. “We made it.”

Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com.