MONTGOMERY, Ala. – It won't just be about history when crowds cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge this weekend and recreate the famous civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery — it will be about targeting Alabama's toughest-in-the-nation immigration laws and its new voter ID requirements.
Organizers expect thousands to participate in the crossing of the Selma bridge for the 47th anniversary of the 1965 incident when peaceful demonstrators were attacked by police in what became known as "Bloody Sunday." The violence helped spark passage of the Voting Rights Act.
They say hundreds plan to make the 50-mile march between Selma and Montgomery over the next week.
"Instead of having a ceremonial thing, we're going to have a protest. I can't do any walking anymore, but I'm going to go to Montgomery if I have to crawl there," said Annie Pearl Avery, 68, who was arrested during the original crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965.
Events will be held daily along the way, culminating with a March 9 rally at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once served.
"We want to bring attention to what's going on, especially with it being the celebration of the right to vote," said Catrina Carter, regional coordinator with the 2012 Bridge Crossing Jubilee. "We want to bring attention to the fact that in the Southern states they are legislatively taking away those rights and putting up road blocks."
Alabama's voter ID law, which won't go into effect until 2014, will require citizens to present photo identification at the polls. The immigration law requires police to determine citizenship status during traffic stops and requires government offices to verify legal residency for everyday transactions like obtaining license tag for a car, enrolling a child in school, getting a job or renewing a business license. Both were enacted last year.
Avery was working to register black voters in Alabama in 1965 when an Alabama State trooper shot and killed civil rights protester Jimmie Lee Jackson, prompting the first Selma to Montgomery march.
"We really didn't know that we were trapped," said Avery, who was jailed. "All they had to do was arrest us, but they beat us and terrified us."
The Voting Rights Act that came about as a result of the march outlawed discrimination at the polls. Avery said people have grown complacent since then, allowing new restrictive laws to be passed.
"This is the last part of my legacy, and we plan to go all the way to Montgomery this year to protest attacks on union rights and voting rights," she said.
The organizers of this weekend's march say voter ID laws, like those that have cropped up in 15 states requiring photo identification at polling places, could disenfranchise about 5 million voters — mostly the poor and minorities.
"This is the largest affront to the Voting Rights Act since it was put into law 47 years ago," said the Rev. Al Sharpton, whose National Action Network is helping organize the march. Sharpton said he plans on making the march between Selma and Montgomery, and he will sleep in tents along with the other demonstrators. He plans to broadcast his nightly MSNBC show from the road in Alabama.
"The march is done in the same spirit, it's the same issues," Sharpton said. He called the voter ID law "a solution looking for a problem."
The Alabama law's sponsor disagreed, saying its intent is to cut down on fraudulent voting.
"I want people that go and vote to make sure they're the person they say they are," said Albertville Republican state Rep. Kerry Rich. "There's certainly been instances of voter fraud in Alabama."
Hispanic groups joining the march plan to tie Alabama's immigration law to the theme of voter suppression, as they call for its repeal.
"It has deported a lot of potential voters, and we're pushing back against that," said Isabel Rubio, executive director of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama.
Rubio said many illegal immigrants have children in the U.S., making the children citizens. When conditions are so bad that illegal immigrants self-deport, those potential voters are lost, she said.
"If you're deporting future voters, there's the chance that you're changing the course of where the state is going. By 2030 or a lot sooner, our country is going to look a lot different than it does now."
Proponents of the immigration law say it is accomplishing what it set out to do — reducing unemployment by freeing up jobs currently done by illegal immigrants and decreasing the taxpayer dollars spent on services for those in the country illegally.
"I understand that most of these leaders are out-of-state agitators and they're here because the law is working," said Alabama Federation of Republican Women president Elois Zeanah.
"Their protests are designed to give illegal aliens sanctuary in Alabama and to allow them to vote. And I don't think they're going to be successful."
The Bridge Crossing Jubilee commemorating the 1965 march has been going on since 1993.