Civil Rights History Comes Full Circle In Alabama For the past nine years, Rep. John Lewis has led a civil rights pilgrimage to Selma, Montgomery and Birmingham.

Civil Rights History Comes Full Circle In Alabama

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This is a year when certain events take on extra meaning. Consider this May, when the Lincoln Memorial is rededicated. That's been planned for years, and now, by chance, it happens under a black president. Then there's the annual event that NPR's Nina Totenberg attended a few weeks ago in Alabama.

NINA TOTENBERG: For nine years, Congressman John Lewis has led a pilgrimage to Alabama to commemorate the violent events of the 1950s and '60s to Selma, where club-wielding police on horseback gassed and set upon praying marchers led by Dr. Martin Luther King, to Montgomery, where Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a bus, and to Birmingham, where police chief Bull Connor set dogs and fire hoses loose on women and children marching for the right to vote.

Congressman Lewis, trained as a minister, was beaten mercilessly on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma as he sought to march peacefully with Dr. King. It was not the only time Lewis would bleed for the cause.

And so every year, he takes some of his congressional colleagues from both parties on this pilgrimage back to his native state, along with some other folks like me.

We started out in Birmingham at the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four little girls died in a bombing in 1963. One of our hosts at dinner was Congressman Artur Davis, who represents Birmingham in the House and is the first African-American to make a serious run at becoming the state's governor. The co-host was Spencer Bachus, who represents the adjacent congressional district and is a white Republican. Bachus, who looks pretty buttoned down, stood to make what I thought would be perfunctory remarks. They were anything but.

He described how his father, one of the city's largest contractors, was approached by a black subcontractor in 1962. The man wanted to bid on installing windows for two public schools being built by the elder Bachus. That simply wasn't done back then, but the senior Bachus agreed to think about it.

Representative SPENCER BACHUS (Republican, Alabama): My dad went home that weekend and just made the decision that he would - the right thing to do was to allow this man bid on the work.

TOTENBERG: So Bachus gulped, awarded the subcontract to the black contractor, and the windows were installed perfectly.

But on the night before the final inspection on the first school, every window in the school was smashed. The police promised to guard the second school to prevent a repeat. But again, all the windows were smashed. Pinkerton agents brought in by the insurance company eventually concluded the police were complicit. And months later, police again looked the other way, only this time, four little black girls died in the bombing of the 16th Street Church.

When Spencer Bachus finished telling that story, Democratic Mazie Hirono, who's been in Congress just two years, called across the room, Spencer, I'll cross the aisle now to get to know you.

Day three of our trip began in Selma at Brown Chapel, which was the staging area and later the hospital for the marchers 44 years ago on the day that came to be known as Bloody Sunday.

The two-hour service was, well, astonishing: a vivid portrait of the social and legal revolution that transpired in the second half of the 20th century.

The official speaker for the occasion was Eric Holder, the nation's first African-American attorney general, in office for less than a month. And the person who introduced him was the daughter of the late Governor George Wallace, the man who famously told the citizens of Alabama: Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever - the same George Wallace who, in 1963, stood in the door at the University of Alabama seeking to block two black students from enrolling. One of those students was Vivian Malone, Attorney General Holder's late sister-in-law.

Now these many decades later, Governor's Wallace's daughter, Peggy Wallace Kennedy, spoke of the civil rights marchers in Selma as a brave band of believers who carried the flag of freedom.

Ms. PEGGY WALLACE KENNEDY: Watching from behind the gates of the Alabama Governor's mansion, I knew in my heart that their cause was just, but unlike them, I did not let my voice be heard. For many years, I wandered in the world of indifference, until I heard the voice of Barack Obama. He inspired me to believe in myself and to join with millions of others who laid claim once again to faith and pride in America.

TOTENBERG: And then George Wallace's daughter turned, and with tears in her eyes, embraced Eric Holder. For several moments, the two just held each other.

Holder's speech was followed by a sermon from the Reverend Joseph Lowery, who, with Dr. King, founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and, 44 years ago, carried to Governor Wallace Dr. King's demand to be allowed to march peacefully from Selma to Montgomery.

In January, Lowery performed a benediction at the inauguration of Barack Obama. And on this anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the 87-year-old preacher held the Selma congregation spellbound, moving the crowd from laughter to tears. He won howls of laughter at the expense of the latecomers to the occasion: the Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who showed up just in time to be photographed.

But Jackson and Sharpton were footnotes on this day.

Dr. Lowery's theme for his sermon was from the 21st chapter of Revelations.

Reverend JOSEPH LOWERY (Reverend, Civil Rights Leader): And I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had passed away.

TOTENBERG: At the inauguration of Barack Obama, said Lowery, he looked down the mall hoping to see the Lincoln Memorial where Dr. King gave his famous I Have a Dream speech nearly a half-century ago.

Dr. LOWERY: But I couldn't make out the Lincoln Memorial. These old eyes had grown dim. But the eyes of my heart saw the Lincoln Memorial and the ears of my soul heard a 34-year-old preacher standing on the steps, issuing a summons to a nation to climb up out of the pits of racism to a higher ground of character and competence. And there I was, never dreaming that I would even see a black president. And here I was not only seeing, but participating. And I was glad to be there to say that today, January 20th, is the nation's response to that summons issued by that 34-year-old preacher in 1963.

TOTENBERG: When Lowery finished his sermon, everyone around the pulpit locked hands: Attorney General Holder and George Wallace's daughter Peggy, Reverend Lowery and Congressman Lewis, and yes, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, too. And they sang "We Shall Overcome."

In one snap shot, there it was: civil rights in America from 1955 to 2009.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington

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