The Bridge From Selma, 42 Years Down the Road
Forty-two years after a 25-year-old activist named John Lewis led voting-rights marchers onto the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside Selma, Ala., only to be beaten and tear-gassed by state troopers on what became known as Bloody Sunday, the bridge is the scene of another kind of showdown. Today, Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are joining Lewis, now a Democratic congressman from Georgia, and thousands of participants in the annual commemoration of the march from Selma to Montgomery, which was finally completed two weeks after Bloody Sunday with the Rev. Martin Luther King.
In an interview yesterday, Lewis reflected on how history might dignify politics -- and whether politics could cheapen history.
-- David Montgomery
Q. Can this annual pilgrimage to keep the memory of Bloody Sunday alive inform the political discourse of today?
A.It is important to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge again . . . People must never forget that 42 years ago, all across the South, people of color could not participate in the democratic process. It was very hard, almost impossible, to become a registered voter. In Selma, 2.1 percent of African Americans were registered to vote. . . . The journey is to remind us what happened and how it happened. And to try to get the nation to take lessons from the past and build on those lessons and go forward.
Do you fear that the political attention will take away from the historical memory, that the anniversary will be over-politicized?
When we go to Selma and walk across the river, we will be traveling across a very special place where people gave a little blood. I think Senator Clinton and Senator Obama will be mindful that this is not some political march or political gathering. This is a gathering to commemorate, to pay tribute, but to also say to another generation they too can make a difference by getting involved in their own communities.
Do you worry that you and the marchers and these sacred places -- that bridge -- will end up being used as props?
It is my hope and my prayer that with the presence of the media and the presence of these two candidates for the Democratic nomination, that bridge will not become a prop. People want to be identified with these sacred places. It's like going to the Holy Land, going to Mecca, going to some shrine.
Do you expect Clinton and Obama to put aside their rivalry, link arms and walk together across the bridge?
If you have Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama in a formal presence there on the bridge walking together, I think it will send a strong message of people coming together. It will be beyond politics. What happened in Selma 42 years ago, and what I hope will happen [today], transcends politics. It says something about the distance we've come and the progress we've made as a nation and a people, to have the top two contenders for the nomination for president to be a woman and an African American.
What will you be thinking about as you cross the bridge?
As I walked across that bridge 42 years ago, it was so quiet, so peaceful, so orderly, no one was saying a word. . . . When we got to the highest point on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, looking down across the river, we could see a sea of blue: Alabama state troopers. . . . You saw these guys putting on gas masks, they came toward us, beating us with nightsticks, trampling us with horses and releasing tear gas. . . . I was hit in the head by a state trooper with a nightstick, I thought I was going to die, I had a concussion on the bridge. Forty-two years later, I don't recall how I made it back across the bridge to the streets of Selma to the [Brown Chapel AME] church. Seventeen of us were hospitalized. . . . As I walk across the bridge, I will be reliving those moments.
Will Clinton's speaking simultaneously at First Baptist Church take away from Obama's keynote address at Brown Chapel AME Church?
I don't think it will take away. The churches are so close, both are on the same street. During the height of the movement, during the height of the whole struggle in Selma, Brown Chapel would be full sometimes to capacity, and First Baptist would be full, and the speakers would rotate. We would leave Brown Chapel and go to First Baptist. It's going to be a large crowd [at the anniversary]. They won't all be able to get into Brown Chapel, some people will go to First Baptist.
How will you decide whom to vote for?
Senator Obama is a friend, a wonderful friend. Mrs. Clinton is a friend. Her husband is a friend. . . . It's a luxury, in a sense, it's a good thing to have two strong viable candidates vying for the Democratic nomination, and one happens to be a woman and one happens to be African American. During the movement, from time to time, I would have an "executive session" with myself. I think I'll do that.