They call what happened in Selma, Ala., on March 7, 1965, "Bloody Sunday." But I don't remember the blood -- truth is, I remember little after the blood began to flow. I only heard the moans and the screams when I watched a videotape 33 years later. What I remember is the silence: 600 people, mostly elderly men and women, marching toward a hostile force, unarmed, protected by hope alone, silent. A light wind blew down the Alabama River. As I stepped onto the Edmund Pettus Bridge at the head of this long, straight column, I could hear the hem of my light trench coat flapping against my legs.
We had told the world we would march: from the Brown Chapel AME church in Selma to Montgomery, 50 miles away. But we had no plans for how far to walk each day, or where to stay at night. The backpack I carried had no change of clothes, no sleeping bag. It had an apple, an orange, toothpaste, toothbrush and two books on political change. I was packed for jail, not Montgomery.
I had seen the inside of Alabama jails many times since I had begun working in Selma as the chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. A century after the Civil War, local blacks were still effectively denied the most basic democratic right, the right to vote. A system rigged against them, and a segregationist sheriff named Jim Clark, had succeeded in terrorizing the local black community. When we arrived in 1962, only 2 percent of African Americans of voting age were registered to vote in the city of Selma and Dallas County, Ala. Some had been arrested, jailed, beaten and even killed for encouraging others to register to vote. Some had been evicted from their homes and fired from their jobs because they dared to register to vote.
Voter registration was permitted only on the first and third Monday of every month in the Selma courthouse. Sheriff Clark made sure he was there, guarding the courthouse steps like a junkyard dog. On the third Monday in January of 1965, I led 35 to 40 elderly blacks to those courthouse steps and Sheriff Clark was waiting, a gun on one hip, a nightstick on the other and an electric cattle prod in his hand.
"John Lewis," he growled, "you are an outside agitator. You are the lowest form of humanity."
"I may be an agitator," I said. "But I'm no outsider. I grew up 90 miles from here. And we're going to stay here until these people can register."
In the next seven days, we failed in our goal but we filled the jails -- 3,000 of us were arrested. The men, women and children standing vigil outside the courthouse were intimidated and harassed. Finally, a young man named Jimmy Lee Jackson was shot in the stomach when he stepped in to protect his grandfather from a raging trooper. Jimmy Lee died from his wounds several days later. The plan to march from Selma to Montgomery was our response.
On March 6, the day before the marchers were to gather in Selma, Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace issued a statement saying the protest would not be allowed. That evening, all white men over the age of 21 were called to the courthouse to be deputized as a posse. At the last minute, many in SNCC wanted to pull out of the protest: People were going to get hurt. They didn't want to see the drama come and then pass, leaving the local people holding the bag.
On Saturday evening, I drove the four hours to Atlanta and spent the night in Fraiser's Cafe arguing with the SNCC leadership, insisting the march must go on whatever the cost. Finally they agreed I could march as an individual, but not as a representative of the organization. Three of us got back in the car and drove the four hours back to Selma, where we rolled out our sleeping bags on someone's floor and slept for two or three hours.
The marchers met for Sunday morning services at the Brown Chapel church. Then we gave them last-minute instructions in nonviolence: We would remain orderly, no matter the provocation. We would carry nothing that could be construed as a weapon. We would not strike back in self-defense. We would not sing. We would not chant. We would not even talk.
It was less than a mile from the church to the bridge. Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference walked beside me in the front line. The extraordinary silence was a testimony to the discipline of the men, women and children behind us. As we approached the bridge, a crowd of about a hundred white people, mostly men, waved Confederate flags and taunted us. We looked straight ahead and kept walking, rising up the slope of the bridge to its apex.
As we crested the top, we stopped. There, facing us at the bottom of the other side, stood hundreds of blue-helmeted, blue-uniformed Alabama state troopers, a sea of blue, line after line of armed men -- some on horseback, many carrying clubs the size of baseball bats. And in the parking lot of a Pontiac dealership I could see the recorders of the history -- photographers and reporters.
For a moment we stood on the bridge. Even the hecklers had fallen silent. My coat flapped in the breeze. We started to walk forward. I noticed several troopers slipping gas masks over their faces as we approached the bottom of the bridge. Maj. John Cloud, the officer in charge, brought a bullhorn up to his mouth and pierced the silent air: "This is an unlawful assembly. Your march is not conducive to the public safety. You are ordered to disperse and go back to your church and to your homes."
We couldn't go forward. We couldn't turn back. We, instead, chose to kneel and pray. We turned and passed the word to our fellow marchers. A moment later, Maj. Cloud barked: "Troopers, advance!" They descended on us in a blur of blue shirts and billy clubs and bullwhips. They trampled us with horses. I heard the voice of a woman shouting, `Get 'em! Get the niggers!' in the instant before I felt the blow of a club against the left side of my head. Then I was lying on the hard, cold pavement. A cloud of tear gas rose around us. I started to choke and kept losing my breath. At that moment, I saw and felt the hand of death.
There is a certain point where you move beyond fear, and I had reached that point. I didn't know the final conclusion, but even then, I believed there would be a victory, not only for us, but for our opponents.
To this day, I don't know how I managed to get off the road and back to the church. I don't remember the horror and chaos that followed as the troopers stampeded into the crowd, beating and whipping and trampling and gassing us, driving us all the way back through the streets, leaving 17 people hospitalized and many more traumatized. But I do remember that the church was full to capacity, and that 1,500 people massed outside in grief and anger.
That was just the beginning. People across the nation, white and black, couldn't believe what they saw on television and read in newspapers, the cruelty and injustice. They were moved by the power of people willing to offer the only thing we had, our bodies, as living witness to the truth. One week after Bloody Sunday, President Johnson spoke to a joint session of Congress. The powerful beginning of his speech still rings in my ears: "At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man's unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama."
In that speech, it was a joy to hear President Johnson say over and over again: "And we shall overcome . . . and we shall overcome." Because of the national outrage over Bloody Sunday, because of the commitment of President Johnson and courageous men and women from every walk of life, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and it was signed into law on Aug. 6, 1965.
As we reflect on the possibilities of a new century, we cannot forget the lessons learned in this one. The Bloody Sunday lesson is that raw human courage can move mountains.
I was 25 years old in 1965. On that day, I grew up. I understood what Dr. King often said: "Nothing could stop the marching feet of a determined people."
John Lewis represents the 5th District of Georgia in the U.S. Congress. His book, "Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement," has recently been published in paperback.