SELMA, Ala. - Oprah Winfrey and fellow actors from the movie "Selma" marched with hundreds Sunday ahead of Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, recalling one of the bloodiest chapters of the civil rights struggle. Their steps in tribute to King in Alabama came as key black members of Congress elsewhere invoked recent police shootings of young black men as evidence that reforms are needed to ensure equal justice for all.
Winfrey, a producer of "Selma" who also had a part in the film, joined in marching along with director Ava DuVernay, actor David Oyelowo, who portrayed King in the movie, and the rapper Common, who also had an acting role. They and others marched from Selma City Hall to the city's Edmund Pettus Bridge, where civil rights protesters were beaten and tear-gassed by officers in 1965.
"Every single person who was on that bridge is a hero," Winfrey told the marchers before they walked up the bridge as the sun went down over the Alabama River. Common and John Legend performed their Oscar-nominated song "Glory" from the film as marchers crested the top of the bridge amid the setting sun.
Winfrey said the marchers remember "Martin Luther King as an idea, Selma as an idea and what can happen with strategy, with discipline and with love." Winfrey played the civil rights activist Annie Lee Cooper in the movie, which was nominated for two Oscars, in categories of best picture and best original song.
"Selma" chronicled the campaign leading up to the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and the subsequent passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Law enforcement officers used clubs and tear gas on March 7, 1965 - "Bloody Sunday" - to rout marchers intent on walking some 50 miles to Montgomery, the Alabama capital, to seek the right for blacks to register to vote. A new march, led by King, started on March 21 of that year and arrived in Montgomery days later with the crowd swelling to about 25,000.
Today, the Selma bridge and adjoining downtown business district look much as they did in 1965, though many storefronts are empty and government buildings are occupied largely by African-American officials who are beneficiaries of the Voting Rights Act.
Lisa Stevens brought her two children, ages 6 and 10, so they could walk the bridge that King walked. "I wanted to bring my children here so they can know their history and for them to participate in this walk," said Stevens, who moved recently from New York to Greensboro, Alabama.
"It's a part of their history and I think that they should know. Being that we're in the South now I want them to understand everything that is going on around them," she said.
McLinda Gilchrist, 63, said the movie should help a younger generation understand what life was like for those in the 1960s who sought to oppose discrimination. "They treated us worse than animals," Gilchrist said of the treatment of the original marchers at the hands of white officers.
"It was terrifying," recalled Lynda Blackmon Lowery, who still lives in Selma and was the youngest person to march there in 1965 as a teenager. Now a 64-year--old mother and grandmother, she spoke Sunday in New York of a harrowing experience of unarmed marchers going up against rifles, billy clubs and fierce dogs. She has since written a memoir, "Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom."
For Monday's federal holiday, some were recalling King's leadership in light of fatal police shootings that have recently shaken the U.S., including the death of an unarmed black teen last year in Ferguson, Missouri.
Eight members of the Congressional Black Caucus joined U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay at Wellspring United Methodist Church in Ferguson on Sunday as they invoked King's legacy. They vowed to seek criminal justice reform.
"We need to be outraged when local law enforcement and the justice system repeatedly allow young, unarmed black men to encounter police and then wind up dead with no consequences," the St. Louis Democrat said. "Not just in Ferguson, but over and over again across this country."
Other King events planned Monday include a wreath-laying in Maryland, a tribute breakfast in Boston, Massachusetts, and volunteer service activities by churches and community groups in Illinois. In South Carolina, civil rights leaders readied for their biggest rally of the year.
King's legacy also was being celebrated at the church he pastored in Atlanta. The current pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, said the annual King holiday is a time when "all of God's children are busy spreading the message of freedom and justice."
In the Sunday sermon, Professor James Cone of New York's Union Theological Seminary urged Ebenezer's congregation to celebrate the slain civil rights leader "by making a political and a religious commitment to complete his work of justice."
Warnock closed the service by leading singing of the civil rights anthem, "We Shall Overcome."