Vice President Joe Biden walks arm in arm with congresswoman Terri Sewell and Congressman John Lewis while crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge during the bridge crossing jubilee in Selma, Ala. on Sunday March 3, 2013. (Montgomery Advertiser, Mickey Welsh) / Mickey Welsh/Advertiser
SELMA, Ala. (Brian Lyman and Sebastian Kitchen, Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser) -- Vice President Joe Biden apologized twice Sunday -- first to an audience in a college gym, then to a crowd at the foot of the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge. Both were gathered to commemorate "Bloody Sunday," when Alabama troopers and Selma, Ala., law enforcement beat back civil rights marchers on March 7, 1965.
"I feel a lot of guilt, like many in my generation, that I could have been here, I should have been here 48 years ago," he said at the Martin and Coretta King Unity Brunch on Sunday morning, saying he remembered watching the scenes of troopers and deputies shooting tear gas at the nonviolent marchers, trampling them with horses and beating them with clubs. "But I wanted my daughter (and) my sister to be with me here 48 years later."
Biden said not coming to Selma to support the civil rights activists was one of the regrets in his life.
The vice president joined more than two dozen members of Congress, civil rights leaders, and some of the original marchers for the annual commemoration of Bloody Sunday. Before marching across the bridge, the vice president was joined on a stage at the foot of the bridge by Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., an Alabama native who was beaten trying to cross the bridge, and Rep. Terri Sewell, a Selma native who became the first black woman elected to Congress from Alabama in 2010.
With the protection of federal troops, protesters eventually marched more than 50 miles from Selma to Montgomery. After people in the nation watched the brutal attacks in news reports, Congress passed and President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which created protection for minority voters and which activists are currently fighting to keep intact. Johnson's daughter, Luci Baines Johnson, participated in Sunday's activities.
The Rev. Al Sharpton said the remembrance on Sunday was not a commemoration, but a continuation. Sharpton was one of a number of speakers who voiced concerns about what they believe to be an attack on voting rights with voter identification laws, and the U.S. Supreme Court considering the removal of a key portion of the Voting Rights Act, known as Section 5.
The section requires certain states and regions with a history of voting discrimination to have the U.S. Department of Justice or federal courts preclear voting laws and maps for voting districts before they are implemented. The nation's high court heard a lawsuit last week brought by Shelby County, Ala., over the provision known as Section 5; attorneys for Shelby County argued the South had changed since the law was implemented, removing the necessity of the provision.
Sharpton said there are still those with a scheme to suppress other voters.
Earlier in the day, Biden told those attending the brunch at Wallace State Community College that Americans "can't let their guard down" against attempts to restrict access to voting. Biden said states had passed 180 laws restricting voting, "some more pernicious than others."
"Here we are, 48 years after all you did, and we're still fighting?" Biden asked the capacity crowd. "In 2011, '12 and '13? We're able to beat back most of those attempts in the election of 2012, but that doesn't mean it's over."
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told the crowd gathering for the march that the work of activists, including those who marched in Selma, made the election of President Barack Obama possible and the appointment of a black attorney general possible.
Holder, the brother-in-law of Vivian Malone Jones who was one of the first two black students to attend the University of Alabama over the objections of then-Alabama Gov. George Wallace, said the nation is not at a point where Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act can be deemed unnecessary. At the brunch, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said the removal of the provision would lead to protests.
"If they remove Section 5, streets cannot hold us," he said. "We're not going back. If they remove Section 5, jails cannot contain us. We're not going back."
William Bell, the mayor of Birmingham, Ala., mentioned that challenge and touched on the 50th anniversary of several critical developments in the civil rights fight in Birmingham, including the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church where four young girls died. "Challenges every day are occurring," Bell said. "Now is the time to recommit ourselves (to civil rights)."
Lewis, a Democrat who represents Georgia in Congress, recalled tests put up as obstacles to black residents voting and the brutal attack in March 1965.
"We didn't give up. We didn't give in," Lewis said, while vowing to continue the fight and noted the accomplishments in Sewell's victory and in Selma having a black mayor.
"But we're not there yet," Lewis said.
The vice president praised those who marched for having "the courage to look evil in the eye, fight against it (and) never give up, knowing, believing that though the cost be high, that victory was inevitable."
"We owe you a debt that can never be repaid ... but must be constantly taught to our children," Biden said.
He said there is no more important moment than Selma in the civil rights movement.
"You lost the battle that day, but you won the war," Biden said. He thanked the marchers, including Lewis, for "helping to liberate the soul of the United States of America."