In the pre-dawn hours of March 8, members representing four north Florida branches of the NAACP boarded a bus and made their way to Selma, Alabama, where they would join tens of thousands in commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march. For those who made the trip, it was a day they won’t soon forget.

At the Family Dollar Distribution Center in Marianna, climbing aboard the bus around 4 a.m. (actually 3 a.m., considering daylight saving time began that morning), were Elmore Bryant, Linda Long and others involved with the Jackson County NAACP branch.

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Arriving a few hours later, the group found itself in a sea of like-minded celebrants, in an environment that was still electric from the day before when a host of political and civil rights leaders gathered to hear President Barack Obama give an impassioned speech near the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of 1965’s ill-fated peaceful protest for voting rights that ended in marchers being beaten by law enforcement. The day became known as “Bloody Sunday.”

Long, a teacher in Grand Ridge and an advisor for the Jackson County NAACP Youth Council, said the trip was long but well worth losing some sleep.

“Our young people were able to take it all in and walk in the footsteps of those who had come before,” she said in a phone interview.

Though she’d taken her own children to Selma before and was familiar with its historical significance to the civil rights movement, the sights and sounds of the 50th anniversary jubilee were powerful for Long, enough to give her goose bumps at one point.

Amid the throngs were members of unions, fraternities and sororities, people of other races holding signs that read, “We support you,” Long said in describing the scene.

“It was black people and brown people and white people — together for the same reason.”

And “people, people, people” is how Bryant described the scene when they arrived. Some estimates have the weekend’s events drawing 60,000 to 70,000 people to the small town.

“You couldn’t even get near the church,” he said.

Luckily, a large television broadcast the service outside the church, for others to listen and watch.

Bryant, a longtime educator, NAACP leader and Marianna’s first black mayor, was taken aback by what he saw.

“Old civil rights leaders, crying and talking to the young people […] college students from across the country, who were very courteous […] retired teachers and professors talking to young folks, who were asking questions.”

“The march was just awesome.”

The emotion of commemorating the historic moment with so many others was almost overwhelming.

“I can’t even describe it in words,” Bryant said.

During his Saturday speech, President Obama said, the “nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us.”

“We know the march is not yet over; we know the race is not yet won.”

But the nation’s first black president, himself an example, also said tremendous strides have been made in race relations since that day 50 years ago in Selma.

And for Bryant, now 80, those strides are evident, even in Jackson County.

“Ever since the MLK celebration in Marianna, things I never thought would come together… I’m beginning to see them.”

Bryant notes the significance of the Marianna High School band marching in the Martin Luther King Day parade, saying that after years of inviting the group to participate, finally seeing them make their way down Orange Street was moving and felt like another significant if subtle shift in the way those outside the black community view the importance of celebrating civil rights leader King.

“When I saw that band, I said, ‘thank you, God.’”

Bryant says it’s important to take every opportunity to share the history of civil rights with the younger generation, to carry on and expand upon the message that the NAACP’s initiative bringing youth to Selma instills.

He tells young people about Harry T. Moore coming to town to teach people about the importance of registering to vote and points out modern milestones in the continuing fight for racial equality.

“I remind them, when you see (Jackson County Commissioner) Willie Spires, and (Marianna City Commissioners) Rico Williams and Travis Ephraim, how important it is to register and vote.”

“There are those who stood in the gap and you respect those (people).”

Present-day achievements may ease the sting of remembering the awful truth of “Blood Sunday,” but the memory of decades of struggle sit heavy with Bryant.

“A lot of young people don’t understand when they see you crying,” he said.

“Because they weren’t there.”

But for a few members of Jackson County’s younger generation — Jayden Sorey, Angelica Godwin, Lajuanna Gardner, Ayanna Blackmon and Taylor McKay — with mentors like Bryant, Long and others, plus the unique experience of their recent trip to Selma, there’s now a better understanding of the “long shadow” cast by America’s racial history.

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