Selma, Alabama (CNN)Saturday marks 50 years since “Bloody Sunday,” when hundreds of people were brutally attacked by Alabama State Troopers as they marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to protest racial discrimination in voter registration. About 600 people participated in the planned 50-mile journey on March 7, 1965.
The marchers were protesting discrimination that kept black people from voting. But as the marchers approached the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, state troopers used force and tear gas to push them back.
Television coverage of the event triggered national outrage and eventually led Congress to pass the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, which mandated federal oversight over elections in states with histories of discrimination.
Leaders, activists arrive in Selma
Many of the nation’s leaders, activists and celebrities were in Selma on Saturday attending various activities taking place in memory of the historic event.
On Saturday, Rep. John Lewis — one of the demonstrators bloodied by troopers 50 years ago — and nearly 100 other members of Congress from both parties planned to join President Barack Obama at the bridge in Selma — a bridge that still bears the name of Pettus, a Confederate general who was also a Ku Klux Klan leader — to mark the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.
The President plans to arrive in Selma with his wife and daughters to speak at the event at 2:30 p.m. ET, then cross the bridge. Former President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush also plan to be in Selma.
The day’s program also includes a breakfast and will follow with a parade, music and street festival and a film festival combining the art and talent of local schools and organizations.
A city of two sisters
Reflecting a sense of change in the half century since Bloody Sunday, and with Selma again in a national media spotlight, the mood in the growing crowd Saturday was of unity, and talks were focused on how to move America forward.
But some current Selma residents worried that after the President has talked and gone, their town — with a population 82% black and with more than 40% of its people living below the national poverty level — will fade from view except for its historical significance.
Many black residents of Selma say they still live in a divisive society and still feel the sting of racism, with true change yet to come.
Geraldine Martin, 59, has lived in Selma all her life. She was 9 years old on Bloody Sunday and with her mother had just welcomed a little sister, Belinda, to the world on that day. The two sisters grew up in Selma less than a decade apart.
They graduated from Selma High School and both had to make decisions about whether to stay in their hometown when few opportunities existed for young people.
“We need to reevaluate our education system,” said Geraldine, who became a special education teacher at Selma High. “We need incentives for young people. I am hoping today’s events will help us move forward.”
Belinda shook her head. She left Selma after high school and now lives in Atlanta. Her view of Selma has changed over the years — looking in from the outside.
“I don’t see how Selma will move forward without togetherness,” said Belinda. “There is no diversity in Selma. People don’t live together.
“I want to ask white people: ‘So why are you so angry at us? Is it really the color of my skin or something deeper?'”
Maybe, she said, the attention on Selma this weekend will help spark a relevant dialogue.
CNN’s Moni Basu reported from Selma. CNN’s Slma Shelbayah wrote and reported from Atlanta. CNN’s Douglas Brinkley contributed to this report.