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Selma to Washington: NAACP begins 860-mile march for voting rights (+video)

Fifty years after Selma's historic marches for voting equality, NAACP marchers depart from the city's iconic bridge for a month-and-a-half-long journey on foot to advocate for racial equality over a spectrum of issues.

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    Cornell William Brooks, NAACP president, holds the hand of Rachel Quarterman, 7, while leading the "America's Journey for Justice March" organized by the NAACP on Saturday in Selma, Ala. The 860-mile relay march is planned to go from Selma to Washington D.C.
    Albert Cesare/Montgomery Advertiser via AP
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When NAACP marchers arrive in Washington, D.C. they will stand outside the Capitol and chant, "Our lives, our votes, our jobs, our schools matter."

But even though the marchers are already en route, they won’t arrive till mid-September. Now, they’re barely out of Selma, Ala. and the 860-mile crusade in the name of voting rights is just beginning.

Activists in “America’s Journey for Justice” are working “to bring attention to the vulnerable communities who are victims of regressive voting rights tactics,” the NAACP said in a press release.

The march began Saturday at Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, evoking the spirit and significance of the city’s marches that helped pass the Voting Rights Act 50 years ago and the bridge that played host to “Bloody Sunday,” in which state troopers attacked marchers with clubs and tear gas.

“On nearly every indicator of progress, people of color are falling further behind: Our schools are more segregated, our levels of unemployment continue to be unacceptably high, we face continued discrimination in voting, and our incarceration rates have increased exponentially,” said Wade Henderson, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights President, in the press release. “In the midst of political grandstanding and gridlock on a host of important issues, we cannot rest on historic accomplishments; we must keep on keeping on.”

NAACP President Cornell William Brooks gave a speech in a program preceding the march and led the first leg of the journey, which he said would take “one million steps.” Between now and their Sept. 15 arrival in the capital, marchers will stop in several locations to discuss different issues: economic inequality in Alabama, education reform in Georgia, criminal justice reform in South Carolina, and voting rights in North Carolina. In Virginia, they will host a youth rally, and Washington will see all the topics addressed together.

The breadth of issues that the march covers is rivaled only by its distance, but advocacy for the Voting Rights Act will play a central role. Two years ago, the Supreme Court struck down a provision of the law that made changes to voting law subject to federal approval in states with histories of discrimination.

NAACP Southwestern Region Organizer Quincy Bates told NBC marching in the Journey for Justice was a way to continue the legacy of those who marched from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, whose work, he said, is being undone.

"Fifty years ago, they gave us the right to vote and fifty years later, we're being challenged again," Mr. Bates said. "This is my turn. This is my time. They did it for me and I will be doing it for someone else."

The march’s kick-off drew more than 200 participants, including Rev. Theresa Dear, who told the Montgomery Advertiser the march was “something of biblical proportions,” and Oregon’s Sen. Jeff Merkley (D), who spoke to marchers as an activist leader prior to the march.

“The foundation of power is the right to vote and who will represent us in Congress,” he told the Advertiser.

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