Election divides civil rights battle town

Mon Nov 3, 2008 12:45pm EST
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By Matthew Bigg

SELMA, Alabama (Reuters) - If Democratic candidate Barack Obama wins Tuesday's presidential election, he will owe a debt to this Alabama town where one of the most significant confrontations of the civil rights era played out.

Forty-three years ago, state troopers and local police wielding clubs and firing tear gas charged peaceful civil rights protesters marching across the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma and beat them senseless.

Their purpose was to stop the march and to enforce laws that prevented blacks in the South from voting.

National TV networks interrupted their evening programs to show footage of the "Bloody Sunday" attack and revulsion at the images so shocked the country it helped forge a consensus for passage of a law that enabled blacks to vote in the South.

"This presidential cycle would not be possible without the sacrifices and the courage of those people on the bridge," said Selma resident Malika Sanders-Fortier in reference to Obama, who would be the country's first black president.

"This is a monumental election for the people of Selma because it represents the direct effect from the civil rights movement," said her husband Franklin Fortier in a view shared by other African Americans in the city of 20,000.

Each year on March 7, prominent politicians march across the bridge over the Alabama River to commemorate the day in 1965 that made Selma a byword for racial intolerance. Obama joined the march in 2007.

But to many people in Selma the election has little to with race and everything to do with a clash between liberal and conservative ideologies. That sentiment matches views in much of the South where most voters say the legacy of a racial history that includes slavery will have no impact on their choices.   Continued...

<p>The Edmund Pettus bridge over the Alabama River at Selma, Alabama is pictured on October 30, 2008. REUTERS/Matthew Bigg</p>