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Civil rights veteran John Lewis still marches to unmistakable drumbeat

By Robert M. PressStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 28, 1985


TO John Lewis, the memory of what happened on Sunday, March 7, 1965, is as sharp as if it had occurred last week. The day began calmly in Selma, Ala., but events that afternoon were to shake the nation and bring down Southern political barriers that had endured for generations.

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About 500 blacks assembled at a church in Selma, Ala., and, with bedrolls, packs, and lunch sacks, started walking out of town toward Montgomery, the state capital. They planned to march there to protest to Gov. George C. Wallace about restrictions on voting rights of blacks.

Mr. Wallace had warned that the march was illegal.

John Lewis, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and one of the younger leaders of the civil rights movement, was at the head of the double column of blacks.

Mr. Lewis, now a member of the Atlanta City Council, recalled in a recent interview at his City Hall office what he saw facing the marchers as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River at the edge of town that Sunday.

``At the foot of the bridge we saw a sea of blue; it was the Alabama state troopers.'' Some 200 troopers and a posse of deputies, including 15 on horseback, were waiting with night sticks, riot guns, pistols, tear gas, and gas masks.

``When the troopers advanced and put on their gas masks, I knew we were in trouble,'' says Lewis. ``They came toward us and started beating us and throwing tear gas. We were trampled and knocked down, and they hit me in the head.''

According to news reports from the scene, troopers flailed their night sticks at the heads of the marchers, knocking some to the ground. The horses were ridden into the blacks at a run. Tear gas was fired. There were cheers from white spectators.

Seventeen people were hospitalized, including Lewis, and some 50 others were treated for injuries.

A stunned nation responded quickly. Several thousand blacks, joined by sympathetic whites, poured into Selma, and another march was begun -- this time under the protection of the US Army, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Alabama National Guard, US marshals -- and Alabama state troopers. This time the marchers, including Lewis, made it to Montgomery.

In August, just five months later, President Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act, providing the strongest voting rights legislation in nearly a century. The year before, President Johnson had told Lewis and some other black leaders that passage of such a law was unlikely because of lack of support in Congress, Lewis recalls.

To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Selma-Montgomery march, Lewis plans to lead several thousand black and white marchers across the same bridge at Selma on March 3. A smaller group intends to walk on to the Alabama capital. This time the issues being raised, Lewis says, include hunger, poverty, homelessness, and remaining impediments to voting such as restricted hours and locations in some Southern counties for registration.

Lewis is coordinator of the march, sponsored by the Atlanta-based Voter Education Project, which he headed in the 1970s, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, once headed by the late Dr. King. Lewis's leadership of the anniversary march is an example of his continuing commitment to the premise that, in his words, ``One person can have a definite influence on changing society.''

Lewis says he still dreams of bringing to fruition what has been called the ``Beloved Community,'' so eloquently evoked by Dr. King in his famous ``I Have a Dream'' speech. This community is described by Lewis as ``a community of peace, love, and justice, at peace with itself. It cuts across racial, ethnic, and religious lines.'' It is, he says, a community that is ``moving beyond the whole question of race'' and in which all are recognized ``as children of the Almighty.''