While most people must move through fear to find courage, Lewis said “I never felt fear, not once.”
Lewis was the first to be beaten in the clash with state troopers, who cracked his skull with a billy club on the date that became known as “Bloody Sunday.” The televised images of the bravery shown by Lewis and other protesters in the face of state violence inspired the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act just two months later.
For the last two decades, the 17-term congressman from Georgia, who died of pancreatic cancer July 17 at age 80, led an annual march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to kindle hope in the ongoing struggle for racial justice. On the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in 2015, he made the trip with the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama.
‘We can’t miss this moment'
Michael Starr Hopkins, a black attorney, political strategist and D.C. native, had just returned to his home from a George Floyd protest in downtown D.C. on May 31 — the night before President Trump ordered federal officers to clear Lafayette Square. Shaken by the unrest he had witnessed, Hopkins said he couldn’t sleep and instead stayed up to watch “Selma,” the 2014 film recreation of Bloody Sunday.
“I realized I had no idea who Edmund Pettus was,” Hopkins said. So he looked him up and found the answer: Pettus was a U.S. senator for Alabama from 1897 to 1907, a Confederate Army officer and, after the Civil War, a grand dragon in the Ku Klux Klan.
“And then I did the most American thing you can do, and I started a petition,” said Hopkins, 33, a founding partner at the PR firm Northern Starr Strategies.
The John Lewis Bridge Project came to life.
There are two petitions now, on Change.org and the project’s website, that have picked up steam since Lewis’ death. As of Saturday, about 715,000 people had signed them, including “Selma” director Ava DuVernay, Kerry Washington, Paul McCartney, Dan Rather and Pettus’ great-great-granddaughter, Caroline Randall Williams, who is black.
DuVernay tweeted: “Edmund Pettus Bridge should be the John Lewis Bridge. Named for a hero. Not a murderer. Join this call. It’s past due.” The Rev. Jesse Jackson has also voiced support for the renaming. A separate fundraising campaign is being hosted by The John Lewis Bridge Foundation on ActBlue, a platform used by Democratic campaigns and causes to raise small-dollar donations.
The effort is not without controversy, with some Selma residents saying the decision to rename the bridge should rest solely with the city. Other critics assert that the Edmund Pettus Bridge is already synonymous with Bloody Sunday and argue that renaming it for Lewis would be a disservice to the other protesters who marched and endured violence that day. Lynda Lowery, who was 14 at the time and received 35 stitches to her head that day, is among those who have voiced opposition to the renaming.
The revived renaming effort is coming at a time when Americans are re-examining the nation’s relationship with the Confederacy, and in some cases destroying or removing monuments that pay homage.
“I think people see that in this moment in history with so much racial strife that we have an opportunity to press reset . . . and actually live up to our creed,” Hopkins said.
While it’s critical that the community of Selma support the renaming of the national landmark, “what we can’t do is miss this moment. If we get so busy arguing, I’m not sure we’ll get the chance again,” Hopkins said.
The campaign has already won bipartisan support in the state legislature after a similar effort was passed by the Alabama Senate in 2015 but never taken up by the House, Hopkins said. The renaming, Hopkins said, could help catalyze an economic revival in Selma, a heavily black city of 17,000.
“I understand the critique, but I also think John Lewis dedicated his life to bringing people together and forming a more perfect union,” he said, “and Edmund Pettus was devoted to dividing us.”
‘I thought I saw death’
Beneath the bridge’s towering arch on that early March day, Lewis looked down over the roiling Alabama River. He could see “a sea of blue” on the highway ahead — Alabama state troopers at the ready.
Through a bullhorn, the troopers’ leader, Major John Cloud, declared the march unlawful and commanded the crowd to disband. “Go home or go to your church,” he said.
Lewis, in a khaki trench coat, shirt and tie, his backpack aloft, asked to have a word with the state trooper. The major said “there would be no word,” Lewis recalled. Cloud’s men put on their gas masks and their leader yelled: “Advance!”
The protesters crossed the county line on their march to the state capital in Montgomery, and the troopers fired tear gas as they stampeded on horseback through the demonstrators. They swung their billy clubs wildly, battering activists to the ground. The first to take a beating was John Lewis; his knees buckled beneath him as a trooper fractured his skull with a baton.
“I thought I saw death,” Lewis said. “I thought I was going to die on that bridge.”
Instead, he recalled coming to his senses inside Brown Chapel AME Church, the Selma headquarters for the movement, where he was asked to speak to the gathered protesters. “I don’t understand it,” Lewis recalled saying. “I don’t understand how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam and cannot send troops to Selma to protect people whose only desire is to register to vote.”
Only 2.5 percent of black Selma residents were registered to vote at that time. Thousands — doctors, lawyers, teachers — had failed absurd state literacy tests designed to keep African Americans from the polls.
The decision to march came about three weeks before when civil rights leader C.T. Vivian — who died on the same day as Lewis — led a march to the Perry County courthouse to protest the arrest of a young civil rights worker. A line of troopers waited for the marchers at the courthouse, and a protester named Jimmie Lee Jackson fled with his mother to a nearby cafe to hide. A trooper followed the pair into the cafe and shot Jackson, who died eight days later at Good Samaritan Hospital in Selma. The march was intended to provide an outlet for the anger and pain and resolidify the crusade for voting rights.
Alabama Gov. George Wallace (D) denounced plans for what would become the first of three marches and vowed to keep it from happening. Yet he clearly didn’t know what he was up against. On March 7, Lewis, the chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and the Rev. Hosea Williams, of the Southern Christian Leadership Council, led the protesters as they marched in pairs on the 54-mile stretch from Selma to the state capital until they collided with the line of state troopers.
Although protesters would be hospitalized that day and many more treated for minor injuries, Lewis — skull fractured, head bandaged — suffered no wounds to his spirit. He had not felt fear because his deep Christian faith and righteous belief in his cause had fortified him for battle. He believed in the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Beloved Community,” a society founded on justice, equality and love for humankind, and he marched toward that vision until the end.
“On this bridge, some of us gave a little blood to help redeem the soul of America,” Lewis said, on his last trek across the Edmund Pettus Bridge this year. “Our country is a better country. We are a better people, but we have still a distance to travel to go before we get there.”
Magda Jean-Louis and Julie Tate contributed to this report.
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