Civil rights veteran John Lewis still marches to unmistakable drumbeat
Atlanta — 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.
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.''
Julian Bond, a Georgia state senator and longtime friend of Lewis, says: ``At times, when others have turned away from [the dream of] an interracial world, John has stuck with it.''
Segregation was not only wrong, it was ``unchristian,'' says Lewis. It may take ``years, probably generations, before we remove all the scars, the sting, and all the aftereffects'' of racism. But, he adds, ``I have to believe things are getting better.''
Lewis's life has been distinguished by his persistent effort to help make things better, sometimes at great personal risk. Yet he has not been one of the nation's better-known civil rights activists.
``John has not made a point of getting a lot of publicity,'' says Bernard La Fayette. Now a high school principal in Tuskegee, Ala., he participated with Lewis in the nation's first series of sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in Nashville in 1959.
Lewis is a soft-spoken man. But in the past -- and today in the high-ceilinged chambers of the Atlanta City Council -- he has revealed a rocklike firmness when it comes to defending what he sees as a moral issue. An ordained minister who has never taken a post as a pastor, he sees the South as his ``church.''
Some say Lewis is too unbending and unpragmatic. A number of his major efforts in the City Council have failed. But he is used to losing, then coming back for another try, and finally winning.
Friends and colleagues say he was ``fearless'' in the heated civil rights days. After the sit-ins at Nashville, where Lewis studied to become a minister, he helped lead the Freedom Rides -- black and white people riding on commercial, interstate buses through the South in an attempt to desegregate bus stations. The riders were attacked by white mobs in several cities, including Montgomery. Lewis was beaten severely.
Some black organizers wanted to halt the effort, but ``John was responsible for the Freedom Rides continuing.'' says Dr. La Fayette.
``I felt we had a moral obligation to continue,'' Lewis explains today. Between 1960 and 1966 he was beaten four times and arrested 40 times, he says.
But he was totally convinced of the wrongness of segregation. Growing up very poor on a small farm his father owned near Troy, Ala., he saw and ``resented'' such signs of segregation as separate drinking fountains for blacks and whites.
As head of the Voter Education Project in the '70s, he helped spur registration efforts that signed up thousands of blacks across the South, giving them new electoral clout. ``He inspired a lot of people on the local level to do a lot of hard work,'' says Steve Suitts, executive director of the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Council. In a special election in 1977, Lewis ran for the US House of Representatives. Losing in a runoff, he then joined President Carter's administration as a top official with Action, the agency coordinating Peace Corps, and VISTA.
Returning to Atlanta in 1981, Lewis won 69 percent of the vote in the race for an at-large (citywide) council seat. As a council member he resisted a personal plea from his former boss, Jimmy Carter, to back an in-town highway extension that runs by the Carter presidential library, now under construction. Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, who was at Selma with Lewis, also tried to get him to support the highway. The project was approved, with Lewis voting against it. Atlanta city council member Bill Campbell says Lewis ``is effective because he brings the issue of ethics in government to the forefront and continues to hammer on it.'' Lewis inspires people to ``move beyond the mundane and pedestrian and think what is good and right and moral,'' says Mr. Campbell.
Meanwhile, John Lewis may pursue one unfulfilled dream in 1986. He's contemplating a second run for Congress.