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Bloody Sunday memorial to honor late civil rights giants

The Selma Bridge Crossing Jubilee will mark the 56th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the day in 1965 when civil rights marchers were brutally beaten.
Credit: AP
FILE - In this March 4, 2012, file photo, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., center, talks with those gathered on the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge during the 19th annual reenactment of the "Bloody Sunday" Selma to Montgomery civil rights march across the bridge in Selma, Ala. (AP Photo/Kevin Glackmeyer, File)

The commemoration of a pivotal moment in the fight for voting rights for African Americans will honor four giants of the civil rights movement who lost their lives in 2020, including the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis.

The Selma Bridge Crossing Jubilee will mark the 56th anniversary of Bloody Sunday — the day on March 7, 1965, that civil rights marchers were brutally beaten by law enforcement officers on Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge. Lewis, the Rev. Joseph Lowery, the Rev. C.T. Vivian, and attorney Bruce Boynton are the late civil rights leaders who will be honored on Sunday.

Bloody Sunday became a turning point in the fight for voting rights. Footage of the beatings helped galvanize support for passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

This year's commemoration comes as some states seek to roll back expanded early and mail-in voting access and efforts have been unsuccessful to restore a key section of the Voting Rights Act that required states with a history of discrimination to get federal approval for any changes to voting procedures.

"Those of us who are still living, particularly the young, need to take up the challenge and go forward because there is still so much to be done," said former state Sen. Hank Sanders, one of the founders of the annual celebration.

The event typically brings thousands of people to Selma. However, most of the events are being held virtually this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The annual Martin & Coretta King Unity Breakfast will be held as a drive-in event. The Rev. Bernard LaFayette, Martin Luther King III and the founders of the group Black Voters Matter will speak at the breakfast.

President Joe Biden will appear via a pre-recorded message in which he will announce an executive order aimed at promoting voting access. 

U.S. Sen Raphael Warnock of Georgia and U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina will also deliver remarks by video.

Lowery, a charismatic and fiery preacher, is often considered the dean of the civil rights veterans and led the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Vivian began organizing sit-ins against segregation in the 1940s and later joined forces with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In 1965, Vivian led dozens of marchers to a courthouse in Selma, confronting the local sheriff on the courthouse steps and telling him the marchers should be allowed to register to vote. The sheriff responded by punching Vivian in the head.

Boynton was arrested for entering the white part of a racially segregated bus station in Virginia, launching a chain reaction that ultimately helped to bring about the abolition of Jim Crow laws in the South. Boynton contested his conviction, and his appeal resulted in a U.S. Supreme Court decision that prohibited bus station segregation.

His case inspired the Freedom Riders of 1961 — a group of young activists who went on bus rides throughout the South to test whether court-ruled desegregation was actually being enforced. They faced violence from white mobs and arrest by local authorities.

RELATED: Biden to mark 'Bloody Sunday' by signing voting-rights order