Sunday afternoon, March 7, 1965, Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, Alabama
Twenty- five-year-old John Lewis, clad in a gray trench coat and wearing a shirt and tie, walked steadily toward Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. Behind him, some 600 nonviolent protesters marched solemnly, two to a row. The scuffling of their shoes on the pavement serving as the sound track to the procession.
Young Lewis and his fellow civil rights workers had spent months in the literal teeth of the 1960s’ Jim Crow South—patiently and cautiously attempting to secure voting registration for Southern Black American citizens. They had faced the ugliest forms of self-righteous racism, arrests, incarcerations, beatings, cruel condescending words, even murder. They had encountered corruption in government where officials, the local police, state troopers, and the Ku Klux Klan could overlap into a vicious mixture of oppression like an entangled mass of cottonmouth snakes in a swamp.
As a theology student at Nashville’s American Baptist College and Fisk University, Lewis had been a courageous leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s (SNCC) widely publicized, successful, nonviolent “sit-in” movement to desegregate Nashville’s lunch counters.
He had ridden the interstate buses as a freedom rider in the brave campaigns to desegregate interstate travel and bus terminal waiting rooms throughout the Deep South. He had the scars to remind of his actions. Lewis had been arrested multiple times and beaten bloody in the process.
Like his mentor and friend Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis believed in non-violent, peaceful protest against injustice. He practiced it with patience, principle, and endurance. In his heart he believed
in forgiveness, and he worked consistently toward the concept of the “Beloved Community.” Yet as Lewis led this march toward the Edmund Pettis Bridge, he sensed that this march was peculiar, “more disciplined, more somber and subdued, almost like a funeral procession,” he remembered years later. When the group reached the crest of the bridge, Lewis suddenly stopped. Before him, at the bottom of the other side, “stood a sea of blue-helmeted/blue-uniformed Alabama state troopers, line after line of them, dozens of battle-ready lawmen stretched from one side of U.S. Route 80 to the other.” Backing them were dozens more of segregationist sheriff Jim Clark’s armed “posse,”
“some mounted on horseback and many carrying clubs the size of baseball bats.” In the intimidating menagerie were jeering Whites, reporters, cameramen, and a formidable line of parked law-enforcement vehicles.
Tension hung in the air as the marchers proceeded to the bottom of the bridge . . .
The intense preceding days and weeks in Selma had been filled with a fiery crucible-like series of events. The openly racist Selma sheriff Jim Clark, backed by Alabama governor George Wallace, was vehemently opposed to John Lewis and his companion civil rights workers’ efforts to secure voting registration for Southern Blacks. On successive peaceful marches to the green marble steps of Selma’s Dallas County Courthouse, hundreds of people had already been arrested, denied access, blocked, and forced to wait in the side alley. Behind the glass doors of the courthouse entrance was the office of the voter registrar, but the courthouse loomed like a fortress. Sheriff Clark, clad in a military-style waistcoat and a gold-braided officer’s cap, and brandishing a swagger stick, stood with his deputies confronting the would-be voters.
Lewis himself had been arrested in the preceding days, as Clark’s jails filled to overflowing. On one of the voter registration courthouse efforts, police ordered marchers off the sidewalk; then Sheriff Clark manhandled, roughed up, and jailed local Selma advocate Ameila Boynton.
On a subsequent occasion the hot-tempered Clark slammed his billy club down on the head of another black Selma woman, 53-year-old Annie Lee Cooper.
The needless mass arrests and senseless violence were witnessed by national reporters and photographers covering the unfolding drama. Soon the disturbing images flashed across the country. The nation’s eyes were on Selma as the ugliness and gross unfairness of segregation stood naked in the light of day.
Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke at Selma’s African-Methodist Episcopal Church, Brown’s Chapel, and some 250 nonviolent men, women, and schoolchildren marching with him to the courthouse, had been arrested.
Clark’s police had taken more than 150 teenagers into custody, sending them on a forced run into the countryside. Deputies used clubs and even cattle prods to keep them moving.
Several children were later noted to have lumps and head cuts; a few suffered cattle prod burns; and a 9-year-old boy stood in tears after enduring the forced excursion barefoot.
In neighboring Marian, Alabama, there was a peaceful but risky night march protesting the assault and arrest of Pastor C. T. Vivian, who had been smashed in the mouth by an irate sheriff Clark with such force that Clark broke his own finger, as well as the arrest of civil rights worker James Orange. It morphed into a nightmare. The marchers had barely left their gathering point at Zion Methodist Church when they were confronted by local police and state troopers and directed to turn back. Suddenly the police and troopers began beating the marchers while White onlookers rushed in and attacked the reporters covering
the Marion march. Screams pierced the darkness as marchers attempted to escape back into the church.
In the ensuing mayhem, a young Black U.S. Army veteran, Jimmie Lee Jackson, along with his injured grandfather, walked into a nearby café. State troopers followed them in, a fight broke out, and Jackson’s mother was struck. Young Jimmie Lee pushed his way into the melee and was shot in the stomach.
Staggering from the café, he collapsed in the street. He would lie there bleeding for a half hour before local police picked up the critically wounded young man and took him to a local infirmary.
In the following days he would die from his wounds.
Such was the surreal climate that March 7, 1965, morning in Selma, Alabama, as John Lewis stood at the head of 600 marchers on the crest of the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Bloody Sunday: A Nightmare Unfolds on National Television
A mere 50 feet from the wall of troopers, Lewis and the marchers halted. An officer stepped forward. “This is an unlawful assembly,” the officer stated, his voice blaring through a small bullhorn. “Your march is not conducive to the public safety. You are ordered to disperse and go back to your church or your homes.” The march’s coleader Hosea Williams asked to speak with the officer in charge. “There is no word to be had,” the officer flatly responded. “You have two minutes to turn around and go back to your church.”
In his insightful and riveting autobiography of the civil rights movement, Walking With the Wind, John Lewis describes the dire situation: “We couldn’t go forward. We couldn’t go back. There was only one option that I could see. . . . We should kneel and pray,” Lewis said to coleader Williams, who nodded in agreement. The word started to be passed back among the marchers to begin kneeling in a prayerful manner. After a minute the officer shouted “Advance!” and a terrifying wave of blue fury swept down upon Lewis and the rows of peaceful marchers.
A burly trooper set upon Lewis, smashing a billy club into the left side of John’s face. Lewis’ legs gave way, and he collapsed to the ground, curling up in the “prayer for protection position,” but the trooper smashed him again. Tear gas canisters were exploding, and a cloud of smoke surrounded the scene.
John began choking, blood matting in his hair from the vicious blow that had fractured his skull.
This is it. People are going to die here; I’m going to die here, John Lewis recalled in his autobiography. “I really felt that I saw death at that moment.” Lewis was bleeding badly and had faded out of consciousness for a short time. His head was “exploding with pain” as he took in the numbing scene. A teenage boy was bleeding profusely from a savage cut to his head, several women were lying on the pavement, and horses’ hooves from the dreaded mounted posse were pounding on the pavement as well as on the bodies of fallen marchers. Insanely, a mob of White onlookers rushed into the fray to attack reporters and cameramen. Such was the insanity of racism that day. The horrific events of “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965, will always be a stain on American history.
Those marchers still standing turned and walked back to the sanctuary of Brown’s Chapel. Some were vomiting from exposure to tear gas; hysteria reigned, and ambulances screamed as they relayed victims to area emergency care.
Though seriously injured, Lewis initially refused to go to a hospital, wanting to do what he could to help with the chaotic situation at the chapel headquarters. Amazingly, no one had been killed that day, but “some 90 marchers were treated for head gashes, fractured ribs, wrists, arms, legs, broken teeth and arms.” As with John Lewis, some had more serious head injuries, and tear gas burns were common.
Sheriff Clark with his posse men and troopers continued to beat anyone who remained on the street.
Yet a shocked nation had seen it all and was appalled at the senseless racist brutality inflicted on nonviolent marchers who only wanted to be able to register to vote with dignity and respect in their own country. Was this really happening in America, a free democracy? It was no surreal dream—nationally televised on location. Live footage and still photographs, including the trooper viciously beating John Lewis, are available to this day.
The suffering, mind-numbing racism and viciousness laid bare that “Bloody Sunday” at Edmund Pettus Bridge turned against the oppressors and forced the conscience of a nation to act. As Americans felt the horror that such injustice was actually happening in their country, steps to right the wrongs gained quick momentum. The tide was turning: the truth tends to do that.
The march from Selma to Montgomery would be completed. A national voting rights act would be signed into law. Just two weeks later on March 21, 1965, the march resumed as Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, John Lewis, Andrew Young, and other key civil rights leaders at the head of 3,200 marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge and headed for Montgomery. This time there would be nobody blocking their path; as federal lawmen protected them all through the five-day march to the Alabama state capitol steps. Upon their arrival a
young John Lewis joined King as a selected speaker.
Four and a half months later, August 6, 1965, in the same room that Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. After signing the bill, Johnson gave commemorative pens to civil rights leaders, including King, John Lewis, and Rosa Parks. Lewis, who had courageously led the initial march and been beaten bloody in the process, met privately with the president. The young Nashville students, the freedom riders, the many civil rights workers of all skin colors and ages who would not stay quiet, who could not ignore inequity, saw hope that day. In the struggles against injustice, courage and dignity can rise from the ashes of hate; but leaders in the civil rights movement knew their struggle wasn’t yet over. John Lewis would be there for the ongoing journey.
“The vote,” President Johnson said upon the occasion, “is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men.”
John Lewis is now 80 years old, passionate as ever about the Beloved Community and still deep in the struggle against injustice. He was elected to Congress in 1987, representing Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District, and has been holding that responsibility for 33 straight years, a testimony to the trust and respect
that his constituents have for the man who has been called “the conscience of the U.S. Congress.” In late December 2019 Lewis disclosed that he was being treated for stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
“I have been in some kind of fight for freedom, equality, basic human rights —for nearly my entire life. I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now,” John stated. “I’m going to fight it and keep fighting for the Beloved Community. . . . We still have many bridges to cross.”
John Lewis has indeed crossed many bridges. His life, the soul of America and the civil rights movement are entwined. He has been there for the pivotal events, the tragedies, the triumphs—walking with history.
Young John Lewis, the son of rural Alabama sharecroppers, was inspired by the courage of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., during the Montgomery Bus Boycott of the 1950s. As a teenager John had written King a letter. The minister wrote back and included a Greyhound bus ticket for a visit to Montgomery. It was the beginning of a friendship and a lifetime calling in the civil rights movement.
At age 17, during 1957, the youthful Lewis headed to Nashville to attend American Baptist Theological Seminary, intending to be a minister. The historic Black school was ripe with concepts
and individuals who would have a tremendous influence on the decade to come and beyond. The energy of the place was infectious, and this small influential college produced many civil rights leaders. On ABT’s grounds the concepts of nonviolent sit-ins were discussed and practiced. It was a laboratory of brave concepts, insightful ministerial teachers, and the zeal of young talented students who wanted to make a difference in righting the inequity of segregation through nonviolent action.
In Nashville, John Lewis was influenced by the dignified reasoning of Reverend Kelly Miller Smith and particularly the teaching workshops of James Lawson. Lawson’s lectures and concepts would have a profound effect on Lewis and his classmates as well as attendees from nearby Fisk University.
Lawson had served as a Methodist missionary in India and been highly influenced by the nonviolent resistant teachings of Mohandas Gandhi. An early life lesson from his mother about forgiveness and Christian love had also made a great impression on Lawson and was central to his lectures.“Jim Lawson taught us that the capacity to forgive is the essence of the nonviolent way of life,” Lewis recalls in Walking With the Wind. “If you want to create an open society, your means of doing so must be consistent with the society you want to create. Means and ends are absolutely inseparable. Violence begets violence, Hatred begets hatred. Anger begets anger every minute of the day, in the smallest moments as well as the largest.” This concept of love in action was called “soul force” in Lawson’s sessions.
“Both Lawson and Martin Luther King, Jr., knew they were training for a nonviolent struggle that would force this country to face its conscience. ‘Soul force’ would see us through the pain and ugliness that lay ahead, . . . all in pursuit of something both men called the ‘the Beloved Community,’ ” Lewis wrote.
Lewis and the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee were deeply involved in the courageous freedom rides of 1961—men and women, Black and White, who risked their lives in a concentrated effort to challenge the intense segregation of Southern interstate bus travel.
Concentrating their efforts on nonviolent direct action trips through Alabama and Mississippi, the freedom riders were confronted with racist hatred, arrests, jail, and mind-numbing violence.
A bus was set afire; White supremacist mobs and Ku Klux Klan members wielding clubs, metal pipes, bricks, and chains attacked freedom riders attempting to enter bus depots’ segregated waiting rooms. Too often local police would stand aside and not intervene. On May 20, 1961, upon arrival at the terminal concluding a fateful ride to Montgomery, Alabama, seatmates John Lewis and Jim Zwerg (a White student rider) were savagely attacked by violent whites. Both SNCC students were beaten bloody and the next day newspapers carried photos that shocked the country of the blonde-haired Zwerg’s severely battered face and a bloodied Lewis.
John Lewis was there too for the 1963 March on Washington
By August 1963 John Lewis, still just 23 years old and serving at the heart of the Nashville-based Student Nonviolent Co-ordinating Committee, was considered one of the “Big Six” leaders of the civil rights movement. Lewis, with other noted human rights leaders, was a chosen speaker and sat on the committee that helped plan the historic March on Washington. This incredible event, one of the greatest examples of nonviolent action protest in history. An estimated quarter of a million people gathered near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., to protest racial discrimination and support major civil rights legislation pending in Congress.
Shortly before Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, John Lewis stood before the massive crowd and delivered a passionate speech of his own. His words carried an edge and thundered out from the podium, “We will not stop. . . . If we do not get meaningful legislation out of this Congress, the time will come when we will not confine our marching to Washington. We will march through the South. . . . But we will march with the spirit of love and with the spirit of dignity that we have shown here today. . . . By the force of our demands, our determination, and our numbers, we shall splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces and put them together in the image of God and democracy. We must say, ‘Wake up, America. Wake up!’ For we cannot stop, and we will not be patient.” His powerful, heartfelt words resonated strongly with the immense gathering.
The keynote speaker at the event was Martin Luther King, Jr. When King neared the end of his historic speech, legendary soul singer Mahalia Jackson, sitting near King on the podium, “urged him out loud, ‘Tell them about the dream, Martin!’ . . . and so he did.
An incredible day, and John Lewis was there walking with history.
The Trauma of 1968
John Lewis was there, standing numb with grief with the King family and civil rights associates at the funeral of his beloved mentor—cut down by hate. They had marched together from Selma to Montgomery; King had been his inspiration, the leader and colleague in the pursuit of the Beloved Community. Years later Martin’s father, “Daddy King,” would be the minister who married John and his wife, Lillian.
Then, that fateful evening at the Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel. Bobby Kennedy, a man John and others thought committed to carrying on what had been “the dream, stopped by a room where John Lewis and other key campaign workers were celebrating. Kennedy was making his way downstairs to address the media and supporters. Bobby was euphoric, upbeat, and thankful. He shook John Lewis’ hand, laughing and joking with him. Bobby turned to the room of campaign intimates and said, “Wait for me. I’ll be back in 15 or 20 minutes.”Within minutes the celebratory mood was shattered when the room’s black-and-white television set broadcast the news that Bobby Kennedy had been shot downstairs at the hotel.
Stunned, John Lewis dropped to his knees, “crying, sobbing, heaving as if something had been busted open inside.” In a matter of weeks two men whom he had believed in and worked closely with to make America a better place had been killed. In the dark following days, the Kennedy family asked John Lewis to serve as part of the honor guard at Bobby Kennedy’s funeral.
In Walking With the Wind Lewis’ pained words echo the heartache of a nation: “I knew what I was feeling was the same thing as millions of Americans felt. What could we believe in now? How much more of this could we take? . . . The murder of innocent people. Of young men and little girls. What had we come to as a nation, as a people?”
In 1987 John Lewis began serving his first term in Congress, as the representative for Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District. More than three decades later he is still there, passionate as ever. Harvard University’s Cornel West states, “No other elected official in America embodies the grand legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., more than John Lewis.”
Still striving to secure voting registration for Black Americans, overseeing multiple renewals of the Voting Rights Act, working for health-care reform, measures to fight poverty and improving education—John Lewis embodies civil rights. Lewis has never deviated from his core belief in forgiveness, nonviolent action, and working toward the Beloved Community. “You can make a way out of no way,” he says, and has always spoken truth to power with words of moral courage.
Lewis, admired on both sides of the aisle, has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
In a 2017 interview on television’s The View Lewis was asked about his feelings following the tragic display of resurfaced White supremist hate in Charlottesville that claimed the life of a young woman.
“What happened there made me very sad; I cried,” he said, the many long years of progress in the civil rights movement and the victories won with blood and tears along the way no doubt on his mind.
“I don’t want to go back, I want to go forward,” he said. “I want to continue to be part of an effort to make America one when we lay down the burden of race, the burden of hate, and we create one society,
one people . . . we all live in the same house.”
Tears and Forgiveness
One day in 2009, Congressman John Lewis had two unusual visitors at his Washington, D.C., office—a man in his 70s with his 40-year-old son. As previously mentioned, in May of 1961 freedom rider John Lewis had been beaten when he attempted to enter a “Whites only” bus terminal waiting room.
“Mr. Lewis, I’m one of the people who beat you,” the older man said, “I want to apologize; will you forgive me?” Lewis forgave him and the man and his son started to cry.
“They hugged me, I hugged them back, and I started to cry,” John recalled. “That is the power of peace, of love, of nonviolence. As King said, ‘Hate is too great a burden to bear.’ ”
Return to the Bridge
Speaking to a reporter concerning an exhibit of his life at the new National Center for Civil Rights in the nation’s capital, Lewis softly stated, “Dr. King and Rosa Parks inspired me to get in trouble—‘good trouble’—necessary trouble to make our country and our world a better place.”
The legacy of the civil rights movement is obvious in his eyes, but John points out there are many heroes of the movement: courageous, unnamed individuals whose faces and forms appear
in the troubling news photos and film footage of the era.“They were the rank and file in Selma, in Americus, in Little Rock, everywhere. You see their faces today in photographs and history books, and nobody knows their names. That guy sitting stoically at the lunch counter in Jackson . . . and a mob of White hoodlums crowded around him taunting and laughing— who is he? Where is he today? The young man whose pants leg is being torn by a snarling German shepherd in Birmingham—what’s his name? Who is he? Whatever happened to the little girl who was turned head over heels by those fire hoses?”
John Lewis has been back to Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge many times in the years following that terrible event of Bloody Sunday. In 1995 he was there to honor the thirtieth anniversary of the historic march. During 2015 President Barack Obama walked hand in hand with Congressman Lewis and elderly Amelia Boynton Robinson, in her wheelchair, at the head of a fiftieth-anniversary commemorative procession across the bridge.
Somehow it always comes back to the bridge as a symbol. That critical moment in history seized the attention of a nation and brought into sharp focus a gross injustice, a sickness within.
Today, as unsettling winds again threaten the moral authority and fabric of this great nation, it is well to remember the hard-won victories, the blood and tears shed by the courageous men, women, and children of the civil rights movement. When interviewed for a documentary, Lewis spoke earnestly: “I came to the conclusion that our struggle is not one that lasts for one day, one week, a few months, or a few years, but it’s the struggle of a lifetime, of many lifetimes . . . if that’s what it takes to build the Beloved Community, to open society.”
On March 1, 2020, thousands gathered again at the Edmund Pettus Bridge to commemorate the fifty-fifth anniversary of Bloody Sunday, honoring the courage and purpose of the civil rights marchers and the vital role they had played in the signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
This year, because of his cancer treatments, Lewis’ participation was uncertain, but John Lewis could not be kept away. “Voting rights have been abused and denied . . . we must make it easy to participate in the democratic process,” he told an interviewer.
“We cannot give up now. . . . We must go out and vote like we’ve never, ever voted before,” John Lewis told his listeners and all beyond. “We must use the vote as a nonviolent instrument or tool to redeem the soul of America.”
Article Author: Ed Guthero
Ed Guthero has had a critically applauded career as a book and periodical designer, artist, and photographer, and a legacy ensured by years as a university lecturer. Here he shows another skill as an author. He writes from Boise, Idaho.