SELMA, Ala. — The son of civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. told hundreds of demonstrators preparing for a six-day, 50-mile march between Selma and Montgomery that he didn't believe his father even thought there would be an effort to suppress the vote in 2012.
Martin Luther King III and other black leaders addressed the crowd preparing for the march in protest of Alabama's voter ID and toughest-in-the-nation immigration laws. Thousands had gathered early in the day to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma to commemorate "Bloody Sunday," where in 1965 peaceful demonstrators protesting the shooting death of Jimmie Lee Jackson were assaulted by law enforcement.
There was a festival-like atmosphere at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in advance of the crossing, with vendors selling t-shirts, trinkets, funnel cakes and hot dogs while gospel and reggae music played.
"Everyone — children, workers, lower class people, people who can't find jobs — should be here," said LeVar Akerson, 35. Decked out in a backpack full of camping gear, Akerson had driven to Alabama from Dallas, Texas, to take part in the march.
"It's a great thing, to be a part of history. A lot of people died and fought for something that should never have happened. We're all equal, right?"
Alabama's voter ID law will require voters to show photographic identification at the polls in order to vote. The immigration law requires police to determine citizenship status during traffic stops and requires government offices to verify legal residency for everyday transactions like obtaining license tags for a car, enrolling a child in school, getting a job or renewing a business license. Both were enacted last year.
The original Selma to Montgomery march led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which banned discrimination at the polls. Both organizers and demonstrators equated their struggle with Alabama's modern laws with the struggle civil rights protesters went through to end voter suppression.
"You shouldn't have to show photo ID to register to vote," said Albert Brooks, 49, a Birmingham truck driver. "All they're doing is stopping black people from voting."
Proponents of the photo ID law say its intention is not to prevent anybody from voting, but to stop fraud at the polls.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who plans to march and camp out every night along the route to Montgomery and whose National Action Network helped organize the rally, said the trend of many southern states adopting voter ID laws is something that needs to be dealt with.
"We're not being beaten on the bridge," Sharpton said as marchers stopped on the Edmund Pettus for a prayer, "but we're being blocked at the ballot box. We're being profiled on the highway."
Organizers say the immigration law is a form of voter suppression in that the children of illegal immigrants born inside of the U.S. — making them citizens — are often deported along with their parents, depriving the state of a future voter pool.
Lorena Ortiz of Montevallo, Ala., attended the rally with her husband and two children. While Ortiz, 30, is in the country illegally, her children are U.S. citizens. She told The Associated Press through an interpreter that she was risking a lot by showing up at the rally, but she did so to fight for her children's future.
"More than anything, we want to stop the law, so all families can be left in peace," Ortiz said. "So our children can succeed in school without worrying about how they can hurt their parents."
Proponents of the immigration law say it is working to lower unemployment in the state while also decreasing the amount of taxpayer money paid out in benefits to illegal immigrants.
Not everybody at the rally was opposed to the voter ID and immigration laws.
Birmingham trucker Brooks said he supported the state's immigration law.
"I don't see a problem with having to prove your citizenship in some cases," he said. "You could be using a stolen ID. You should have to prove who you are."Comment on this story
Earlier in the day during a service at the Brown Chapel AME Church, the congregation — which included the Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr., U.S. Reps. John Lewis and Terri Sewell, Ethyl Kennedy and about 30 members of the Kennedy Family — U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and others urged those assembled to take up the mantle of their predecessors in the civil rights movement.
"We have to do more than honor their history," Jackson said of the aging civil rights leaders. "We do little honor if we don't move forward."
The march will end on Friday with a rally at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church. Demonstrators have been reenacting the bridge crossing since 1993.