Sixty years after Rosa Parks took a seat in the front of a Montgomery city bus and sparked the Civil Rights movement in Alabama, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton spoke in the same church where the bus boycott was organized.
From the historic setting, Clinton addressed members of the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church and members of the National Bar Association on Tuesday, Dec. 1 about the civil rights problems still facing the nation.
“There are still injustices perpetrated everyday across our country, sometimes in spite of the law, sometimes, unfortunately, in keeping with it,” Clinton said. “There are still too many Americans, especially too many African-Americans, whose experience of the justice system is not what it should be.”
Local leaders, including U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, civil rights lawyer Fred Gray, Montgomery County Commission Chairman Elton Dean and Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange, a Republican; addressed the at-capacity crowd before Clinton stepped to the pulpit.
The National Bar Association and the Tuskegee History Center hosted the event at the church where Martin Luther King Jr. was once pastor.
“The Black Church was so pivotally important during the Civil Rights movement, but also the courtroom played a very important role in the Civil Rights movement,” Sewell said.
Gray, now 85, represented Parks 1965, but said he remembers his first client Claudette Calvin, who was arrested nine months before Parks for refusing to give up her seat to a white person.
“If Claudette Calvin had not done what she did on March 2, 1955, because … she gave courage Rosa Parks and all of us,” Gray said.
Although the event was titled “The Role Lawyers Played in the Montgomery Bus Boycott and in the Civil Rights Movement,” Clinton addressed current issues of the Democratic campaign, including the recent Driver’s license offices closings in Alabama.
Gov. Robert Bentley announced in September that the license offices at 31 locations, mainly in poor majority African-American counties, would close to save money.
Clinton called the closure attempt to restrict voting of African-Americans.
“(The right to vote) cannot and must not be taken away,” Clinton said.
Bentley announced in October that the offices would be open one day a month after facing criticism in the national media.
“To suggest the closure of the driver's license offices is a racial issue is simply not true, and to suggest otherwise should be considered an effort to promote a political agenda," Bentley said in a statement issued in October.
Clinton also brought up the need to reform the criminal justice system.
“There is something profoundly wrong when African-American men are still far more likely to be stopped and searched by police, charged with crimes and sentenced to longer prison terms for doing the same things as a white man,” Clinton said. “… Right now, an estimated 1.5 million black men are missing from their families and communities because of incarceration and premature death.”
Clinton said although the United States is less than 5 percent of the world’s population, it has almost 25 percent of the world’s prison population, the majority of which are in prison for nonviolent offenses.
“Keeping (nonviolent offenders) behind bars does little to reduce crime, but it does a lot to tear apart families and communities,” Clinton said. “It’s time to change our approach and end the era of mass incarceration in America.”
Clinton said the trust must be restored between law enforcement and the communities they serve.
“Across the country, many police officers are out there every day inspiring trust and confidence,” Clinton said. “Honorably doing their duty, putting themselves on the line to save lives. And many police departments are deploying creative and effective strategies demonstrating how we can protect the public without restoring to unnecessary force.”
Clinton also called the epidemic of gun violence a “national emergency” and criticized Congress for refusing to take up any bills on gun control, even one that would prohibit people on the National No-Fly list from buying a gun.
“It seems reasonable to assume that if you’re too dangerous to fly in America, you’re too dangerous to buy a gun in America,” Clinton said.
Clinton was not the only presidential candidate in Alabama on Tuesday. Sen. Marco Rubio, who is running for the Republican Party’s nomination, made a stop in north Alabama in Guntersville.
Alabama will see several visits from presidential candidates leading up to the “SEC primary” on March 1.
After Clinton spoke, Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., gave a benediction, and following her prayer the crowd joined hands and sang “We Shall Overcome” as photographers snapped away on their cameras.