45 Years Since Selma, Rep. John Lewis Reflects

Thousands converged on Selma, Ala., to mark the 45th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday," when hundreds of peaceful civil rights protesters set out for Montgomery, to march for voting rights. U.S. Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) reflects on the day he marched in Selma.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Thousands converged yesterday on Selma, Alabama to mark the 45th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. That day, on March 7th, 1965, hundreds of peaceful civil rights demonstrators set out from Montgomery to march for voting rights. Only a few blocks in, as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were beaten back by Alabama State Troopers. The incident and the images carried in newspapers and on television shocked the nation and the world and became a turning point for the civil rights movement.

If you took part in that march or the two that followed later that month, if you watched the footage of the event on television that day, what did it mean to you? Tell us your story about Bloody Sunday. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

Democratic Congressman John Lewis of Georgia was on the Edmund Pettus Bridge that day, and he was there again yesterday, where he led thousands in a recreation of the march. And John Lewis joins us now by phone from here in Washington, D.C. It's an honor to have you on the program, sir.

Representative JOHN LEWIS (Democrat, Georgia): Im delighted and very pleased to be on the program this afternoon.

CONAN: And I know you've told this story a million times. Would you tell us one more time what you remember on the bridge that day?

Rep. LEWIS: On March 7th, 1965, about 600 of us left a little church called Brown Chapel AME Church to walk in an orderly, peaceful, nonviolent fashion from Selma to Montgomery to dramatize to the nation and to the world the people of color who had been denied the right to vote, to participate in a democratic process. We were orderly. We were peaceful. And when we got to the apex of the bridge, the highest point on the bridge, down below, we saw a fleet of blue Alabama State Troopers.

And we continued to walk, and we came within hearing distance of the state troopers. And a major of the state troopers identified himself and said, I'm Major John Claude of the Alabama State Troopers. This is an unlawful march. It will not be allowed to continue. I'll give you three minutes to disperse and return to your church. And one of the young men walking beside me - one of the co-leaders of the march by the name of Jose Williams, from Dr. King's organization - said, major, give us a moment to kneel and pray.

And the major paused for about a minute, and he said, troopers advance. And you saw these men putting on their gasmasks. They came toward us, beating us with nightsticks, bullwhips, tramping us with horses, releasing the teargas. I was hit in the head by a state trooper with a nightstick. My legs went from under me. I thought I was going to die. I thought I saw death.

I had a concussion there at the bridge, and I don't recall 45 years later how we made it back across the bridge, crossing the Alabama River back to this little church that we left from. And when we returned to the church, the church was full to capacity. More than 2,000 people outside trying to get in to protect what had happened. And someone asked me to say something to the audience.

And I stood up and said, I don't understand it. I don't understand it, how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam and cannot send troops to Selma, Alabama, to protect people whose only desire is to register to vote. And the next thing I realized, I had been admitted to the Good Samaritan Hospital, a short distance away. There were 17 other people who had been hurt.

CONAN: You eventually did make it from Selma to Montgomery, but on a third try.

Rep. LEWIS: It was a third trip. On March 9th, Dr. King had asked that religious leaders come to Selma. That was the Tuesday following that Sunday. And more than a thousand ministers, priests, rabbis and nuns came from all over America and marched to the point where we had been beaten two days earlier and turned back. And one young minister who went out with three other young, white ministers to try to get something to eat the night of March 9th were attacked by members of the Klan. One was so severely beaten. His name was James Reed, Reverend James Reed from Boston. And two days later, he died...

CONAN: Mm.

Rep. LEWIS: ...at a hospital in Birmingham, Alabama.

But we went into federal court, got an injunction against Governor Wallace, against the (unintelligible) for a man by the name of Jim Claw(ph) and the local authority. And the federal jurors granted us our wish. And on March 21st, the second - the third attempt, more than 10,000 people started walking out of Selma on Sunday, March 21st. And the order that was issued was that 300 of us can walk all the way and about two miles out of Montgomery. Others were allowed to join us.

And we went into Montgomery, a few days later - I believe it was March 25th or 26th - there were more than 25,000 American citizens. But Bloody Sunday, it did shock the nation. There was a sense of righteous indignation all over America. People couldn't believe it. In a few days, there were demonstrations in more than 80 cities, at the White House, at the Department of Justice, at American embassies abroad.

CONAN: Much more than those who are outside of the leadership and that particular event, you were caught up in it. When did you become aware of the profound effect it was having?

Rep. LEWIS: I knew a few days later with the reaction from the American people, from members of the Congress, that what we did and what happened on Bloody Sunday, you know, we were unarmed citizens. We didn't have sticks and bricks and bottles. We didn't have any guns. We were armed, only with a dream. And the American people couldn't take it. They - I remember Senator Ralph Yarborough, taking into the Senate floor, and he said: Shame on you, George Wallace. Shame on you.

And then, the president of the United States, President Lyndon Johnson, invited Governor George Wallace to Washington to try to get - well, approval, a confirmation that he would be able to protect us, if we decided to march again. And the governor of Alabama, Governor George Wallace, could not guarantee President Johnson that he would be able to protect us. So President Johnson called out part of the military. And on March 15, 1965, he made one of the most meaningful speeches any American president had made in modern time to a joint session of the Congress, on the passage of the Voting Rights - introduced the Voting Rights Act.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Rep. LEWIS: And in that speech, before he concluded his speech, he said: And we shall overcome and we shall overcome. I was sitting next to Dr. Martin Luther Jr. in the home of a local family as we watched and listen to President Johnson. And tears came down his face. Dr. King started crying and we all cried. And Dr. King said to me: John, we will make it to Montgomery and the Voting Rights Act will be passed. And we did walk all the way - the entire 50 miles.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. Our guest, of course, John Lewis, the U.S. congressman from Georgia. 800-989-8255; email us talk@npr.org. Harry(ph) is on the line calling from San Antonio.

HARRY (Caller): Yeah. Hello.

CONAN: Harry, go ahead, please.

HARRY: Yeah. I was - hi, I was a Catholic seminarian at the time in 1965. And this was unheard of, but our - a professor of Moral Theology, his name was Father Robert Kerber(ph), told approximately 70 of us, we're going to take a bus down to Selma to support what's going on. And in those days, John, you just didn't get out of the seminary if you were a Catholic seminarian. So we took the bus down. It was about a 12-hour ride and I'm very proud of the fact that I was there for that third march, not the first one, because I probably would have had my head beaten in too. And it was one of the things I am most proud of.

Rep. LEWIS: Well, thank you so much for coming. Thank you for being there. Thank you for being a witness. So many young people came from the Catholic community. A priest, nuns - from all over America. You know, if it hadn't been for the...

HARRY: A lot of (unintelligible). The word got out.

Rep. LEWIS: Well, the Catholic community, along with members of the protestant community, responded. There was a little Catholic hospital in downtown Selma, Good Samaritan. And the sisters there took very good care of us. If it hadn't been for this little mission, some of us probably would have died.

CONAN: Harry, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

HARRY: Thank you. Bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to Richard(ph). Richard calling us from Birmingham.

RICHARD (Caller): Good afternoon. In - it was '95 or '96, I can't remember exactly when, there was a made for TV movie, "Selma, Lord Selma" made there in Selma for the anniversary. And I got to play an extra in that movie.

Rep. LEWIS: Wonderful.

RICHARD: And what was just - it chokes me up just thinking about it now - was that during the scene - I was on the side with most people - during the scene of the actual beatings on the Montgomery side of Edmund Pettus Bridge, where the actors playing troopers and the marchers. And there was the melee and the smoke - of course, it wasn't real teargas - but the beatings and horses and so forth. And then, the director yelled, cut.

And there was two or three of these scenes done, two or three takes. And after every one, the troopers bending down and helping up the actors and the extras playing the marchers and laughing and brushing each other off and patting each other on the back. And by the third time, people were choking up and in tears, not only seeing this portrayed on a set, a live set, but also seeing people hugging and laughing and so forth. And then after that, we all retired to tents and broke bread together. And we have a long way to go, but just seeing that was an incredible moment.

Rep. LEWIS: Well, we have come a distance and we have made a tremendous amount of progress since Bloody Sunday 45 years ago. In 1965, only 2.1 percent of blacks of voting age in Dallas County and Selma were registered to vote. There was not any black elected officials. And today, in Alabama, there's hundreds of black elected officials and hundreds and thousands all across the South. People had to pass a so-called literacy test. On one occasion, a man was asked to count the number of bubbles on a bar soap. On another occasion, a man was asked to count the number of jelly beans in a jar. But black lawyers, black doctors, black teachers, college professors would flunk the so-called legislative.

CONAN: Richard, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

RICHARD: I have to mention, it's been almost a year to the day, Congressman Lewis, that I actually met you at one of the house cafeterias. You wouldn't remember me, but I certainly remember you in that meeting. So thank you, sir, for all you do.

Rep. LEWIS: Well, thank you, sir.

CONAN: We're talking with Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, about Selma, 45 years later after Bloody Sunday.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And, Congressman, I'm curious, how many times have you been on the Edmund Pettus Bridge since that day?

Rep. LEWIS: I've gone back every single year since then. I go back to be renewed and to encourage others to go back, for we would never ever forget what happened.

You know, sometimes when I see still photographs of the video of what happened, it's still hard and difficult for me to believe sometimes that it really did happen. And I don't quite understand it, how I - people could do what they did to us. We were American citizens - orderly, peacefully, we weren't singing, we weren't talking. And we were exercising our Constitutional rights.

CONAN: Let's go next to Dan(ph). Dan with us - another caller from Birmingham.

DAN (Caller): Hello, Mr. Lewis. It's such a privilege to speak to you. I was wondering if you have ever had the opportunity, since that day, to speak to any of those state troopers that were on that bridge and what they might have had to say and what you had to say, if that was...

Rep. LEWIS: I don't recall ever speaking to one of the state troopers that was on the bridge. But yesterday - and 10 years ago, when President Clinton came down and - to walk across the bridge with us for the 35th anniversary, state troopers stood on both sides of the bridge. And we must remember, in 1965, you didn't have any black people as state troopers. You didn't have any women as state trooper. But the black men and women and the white men and women state trooper, stood and saluted us as we crossed the bridge.

And yesterday, while we were there, traveling from Montgomery to Selma and back from Selma to Montgomery, to come back to Washington, it was the Alabama State Troopers that provided and escort, and they provided all of the security. And I shook hands with so many of the state troopers in Montgomery and in Selma that came here from all across the state.

But on another occasion, I was standing in the Birmingham Airport and a middle-aged white gentleman came up to me and said, Congressman Lewis, I want to apologize to you, on behalf of all of the white people in Alabama, for what we did.

CONAN: Dan, thanks very much for the call.

DAN: Thank you.

CONAN: As you know better than I, you were talking about shame on you, Governor Wallace. He, of course, had his own trials later. He was nearly assassinated and injured and - severely so, and later had a change of heart. I wonder if you ever had a chance to talk with Governor George Wallace.

Rep. LEWIS: On one occasion - on more than one occasion, during the late '70s, I had an opportunity to talk with him. And on one of our trips, when I took members of Congress down before Governor Wallace passed, we had an opportunity to visit with him in his home. He was in his bed watching the Wallace story on television. It was a video he was watching.

And the first time I met with him, asked him, I said, Governor, why did you give the order for the state trooper to stop us, to beat us? And he said, John, there were people waiting on other side of the bridge to kill you. I said, well Governor, do you kill people in order to keep other people for killing? And he'd really didn't have more answer, but he said he didn't mean for the Alabama State Troopers to beat us the way they did.

CONAN: Did you believe him?

Rep. LEWIS: I wanted to believe him.

CONAN: Congressman Lewis, we just have time to read this last email we got from Betsy(ph) in Minneapolis. John Lewis, the country is so lucky to have you. I've heard you retell the story many times and it never fails to give me chills. Thank you for your service to the country.

Rep. LEWIS: Well, thank you. Thank you. Thank you, Betty(ph). What we tried to do was just trying to make our country better and to help create a more perfect union. But hundreds and thousands of people participated in the struggle, black and white - Latinos, Asian-American, as well as Native American.

CONAN: Congressman John Lewis of Georgia - he represents the fifth district there. He joined us today by phone from his office here in Washington, D.C.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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