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Democratic presidential candidates marking Selma anniversary

SELMA, Alabama — Several Democratic White House hopefuls are gathering at one of America’s seminal civil rights sites on Sunday to pay homage to that legacy and highlight their own connections to the movement.

Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who already are in the 2020 race, and Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who could soon join them, are scheduled to participate in events surrounding the anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama.

American Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929 – 1968) and his wife Coretta Scott King (1927 – 2006) (center, arm in arm) lead others during on the Selma to Montgomery marches held in support of voter rights, Alabama, late March, 1965. Among those with them are Reverend Ralph Abernathy (1926 – 1990) (at left, facing camera), and Pulitzer-Prize winning political scientist and diplomat Ralph Bunche (1904 – 1971) (front row, third left with glasses) whose his wife, Ruth (nee Harris, 1906 – 1988), holds his arm. (Photo by Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images)

Participants marching in a civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in this 1965 photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress via Reuters

On March 7, 1965, peaceful demonstrators were beaten back by Alabama state troopers 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.

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This year’s commemoration comes in the early days of a Democratic primary that has focused heavily on issues of race. Several candidates have called out President Donald Trump as a racist while others have voiced support for the idea of reparations for the descendants of enslaved black Americans.

The candidates visiting Selma intend to highlight how civil rights have shaped their narratives.

Booker, who announced his candidacy at the start of Black History Month, is the keynote speaker at Brown Chapel AME Church for a service before the symbolic bridge crossing later in the day.

He has spoken of himself as a direct beneficiary of the civil rights era after his family was denied housing in a white neighborhood. In January, Booker traveled through Georgia with Georgia Rep. John Lewis, an Alabama native and civil rights leader who was nearly killed in Selma 54 years ago.

Sanders attended the 1963 March on Washington where Lewis spoke and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “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 reset his relationship with black voters, with whom he struggled to connect in the 2016 Democratic primary that Hillary Clinton won.

Clinton also is set to attend commemoration events in Selma.

Brown, currently on a “Dignity of Work” tour inspired by King, is returning 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.

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 gutting the landmark Voting Rights Act.

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.

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