(Reuters) - NAACP leaders launched a 40-day march across the U.S. South on Saturday with a rally in Selma, Alabama, drawing on that city’s significance in the 1960s civil rights movement to call attention to the issue of racial injustice in modern America.
Organizers of “America’s Journey for Justice” want to build momentum behind a renewed national dialogue over race relations prompted by the killing of a number of unarmed black men by police officers over the past year.
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People leaders at the rally urged marchers to honor the memories of New York’s Eric Garner and Cincinnati’s Samuel DuBose, two of the unarmed black men killed in the police confrontations.
The march, which would cover nearly 900 miles, began on Selma’s historic Edmund Pettus Bridge, where police beat peaceful marchers with clubs and doused them with tear gas in 1965. The infamous confrontation was a catalyst for the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act, signed into law 50 years ago this week.
After two aborted attempts, civil rights activists led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. eventually marched to the state capital of Montgomery to build support for the legislation, which seeks to protect the rights of minority groups to cast ballots.
“We know we can do the distance because our lives, our votes, our jobs and our schools matter,” said Cornell William Brooks, president and chief executive of the NAACP, one of the oldest and largest civil rights groups in the United States.
“Let us march on, let us march on, let us march on till victory is won,” Brooks chanted before leading the crowd, two by two, across the bridge.
Organizers say the outcry triggered by the recent police killings, including the shooting of a black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, needs to be channeled into a long-term commitment to bring about change.
“We can continue to be serially outraged, or we can engage in an outrageously patriotic demonstration with a commitment to bringing about reform in this country,” Brooks said before the rally.
The march will feature “teach-ins” and other events in five states - Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia - as it makes its way to the nation’s capital, where organizers hope to draw thousands at a final rally on Sept. 16.
The NAACP aims to bring attention to racial injustice across issues like policing, public education, incarceration, voting rights and income inequality.
Brooks said the NAACP will look to mobilize thousands by the time it arrives in Washington, working with organizations representing labor unions, environmentalists, women’s advocates and Judeo-Christian religious leaders.
Reporting by Letitia Stein in Tampa, Florida; additional reporting by Katie Reilly in New York; Editing by Frank McGurty, Alden Bentley and Richard Chang