It all started so quietly – in 1940:
Construction was completed on the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River in Selma. The bridge was named in honor of a man who led Alabama’s Ku Klux Klan as its “Grand Dragon of the Realm” and served in the U.S. Senate from 1897 to 1907.
John Lewis was born in Troy, Alabama, about 90 miles from Selma.
Some 25 years later, John Lewis led a march across that bridge and added a new and tragic milestone to the Civil Rights Movement: “Bloody Sunday” (March 7, 1965). This year marks the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday and the 28th year that John Lewis is serving as a member of Congress.
In his autobiography Walking with the Wind, Lewis details his journey from the lunch counters of Nashville to the bridge at Selma to the halls of Congress. As a college student in Nashville, he embraced the teachings of nonviolent resistance and became a leader of the 1960 sit-ins. It was here that he proudly began his string of 40 arrests in six years. The success in Nashville received wide recognition and many of the students became leaders in the growing Civil Rights Movement, most notably as part of the newly formed Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In 1961, SNCC joined forces with CORE for the Freedom Rides designed to integrate public transportation in the South. Lewis was one of the original 13 Freedom Riders and was beaten unconscious in a Birmingham bus station in Bull Connor’s jurisdiction.
Lewis became chairman of SNCC in 1963 and that put him on the stage as one of the “Big 6” to address the March on Washington that concluded with the “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King. Lewis was by far the youngest speaker and is the sole survivor. The march was instrumental in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but as Lewis had warned, it did not offer any true help on the right to vote. And the Klan proved the point. From June to September of 1964, the SNCC voting registration campaign of Mississippi Freedom Summer counted over 1,000 arrests, 80 beatings, 35 shootings, 35 church burnings, 30 bombings and 3 murders.
In the aftermath of Mississippi, Selma took center stage. SNCC had been working with a local group in Selma where less than 1% of eligible blacks were registered. Martin Luther King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference joined in the effort in 1965 and planned a 54-mile march to the state capital in Montgomery. On Sunday, March 7, Lewis and Hosea Williams of King’s SCLC led 600 marchers to the Edmund Pettus Bridge where they were brutally attacked by state and local “lawmen” with tear gas, billy clubs and bullwhips. Mounted troopers trampled over many protestors. Lewis was among the many hospitalized marchers and suffered a fractured skull. An ABC news crew rushed film to the network which interrupted that night’s movie broadcast of Judgment at Nuremberg. The TV audience was huge and the parallel to the racist atrocities in the movie added to the impact.
Although King had participated in some prior Selma protests, including being jailed in February, he was not there on Bloody Sunday. He was in Atlanta preaching at his church and rushed back to Selma after he got word of the attacks. He invited ministers of all faiths to join him, and hundreds showed up overnight. He called upon President Lyndon Johnson for action. Johnson believed that voting rights progress was needed, but he and civil rights leaders had disagreed on how soon Congress could be pushed to act. Bloody Sunday removed all doubt and prompted Johnson to address Congress on March 15: “At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week at Selma.”
With a court order in hand and protection from Federal troops, King, Lewis and others were finally able to lead a march that left Selma on March 21 and arrived in Montgomery on March 25. The crowd grew from an original 3,200 to 25,000 as they reached Montgomery. King’s speech at the end of the march includes his well-known quote: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” And the arc did bend. Less than five months later, President Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Lewis, a member of Congress since 1987, knows that the battles are not over. Last year on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, he remarked “If you ask me whether the election [of Obama]…is the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream, I say, ‘No, it’s just a down payment.’ There are still too many people 50 years later that are being left out and behind.” The arc of the moral universe still needs bending, and justice inequality continues to smolder as a divisive issue in current race relations.
But Lewis remains steadfast in his belief in a nonviolent approach. In the aftermath of Ferguson, his Twitter messages reminded all that “Nonviolence is the only path to justice. Violence solely serves to feed the hungry beast of oppression…Only love can overcome hate…It’s good to disturb the order of things, to show signs of discontent, but it must be peaceful, orderly and disciplined.” The man who sat at the lunch counters, rode the buses and marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge would know.
Please remember that the MLK holiday is not just recognition of the past, but also a hope for greater justice in the future. Congressman Lewis often delivers this message by quoting an old gospel refrain and asking others to join him to…
KEEP OUR EYES ON THE PRIZE.