Live long enough and life can be filled with strange symmetries. Rep. John Lewis has seen that to be true several times this year.
He has twice viewed the Golden Globe-nominated movie “Selma,” which depicts a series of historic civil rights marches from a small Alabama town to the state’s capitol. Lewis, who is portrayed by an actor in the film, helped to lead the protesters across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 and found the experience of watching the events reenacted on film to be surreal.
“I grew up not far from Selma,” Lewis said in an interview this month. “When we would go to the theater as young black children, we had to go upstairs to the balcony and all the little white children went downstairs to the first floor.”
He paused for a heavy moment and continued: “Seeing myself being played is almost too much.”
Lewis, who has represented Atlanta on Capitol Hill for nearly three decades, was a leader of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and is an important character in “Selma,” which was released on Christmas. The movie is a tightly told narrative of the historic march for voting rights that included the vicious beating of 600 marchers by law enforcement officials on the bridge in Selma. Lewis’s head was bloodied by a lawman’s club.
That chaotic scene is shown blow for blow on the big screen. Art echoing life in a way Lewis could never have foreseen.
This summer, on the day that Lewis stepped onto the set of the movie in Atlanta, he had another experience that was “almost too much.” There he watched the cast as they filmed a reenactment of the funeral of Jimmie Lee Jackson, one of the little-remembered martyrs of the civil rights movement. Lewis, a student leader of the movement at the time of Jackson’s death, was in the pews of a Marion, Ala., church and listened then as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the eulogy for Jackson in February 1965.
Jackson, a 26-year-old civil rights protester who was shot and killed by an Alabama state trooper, was a “hero of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity,” King told the crowd. At the end of the funeral, Lewis walked out of the church and into a drenching rain.
It felt like more than happenstance when Lewis again stepped out into a pouring rain at the conclusion of his day on the movie set.
“It was sort of eerie,” Lewis said.
While on set, Lewis visited Ava DuVernay, the film’s director, who has been nominated for a Golden Globe. Moved by the weight of the history she was directing on-screen, she began to cry when she saw Lewis and hugged him, he said. Then DuVernay introduced Lewis to Stephan James, the actor who plays him in “Selma.” The two men, both with honey-brown skin and short statures, share a resemblance. And James, who is Canadian, deftly captures the slow, rhythmic cadence of Lewis’s manner of speaking.
When the two met, Lewis was also brought to tears.
Being on set also brought up stories that are never buried too deeply in the recesses of Lewis’s mind. He often retells the history he experienced in the movement — the dates, places and personalities are part of his lived history. Many of the key moments surface in the film.
“We had to go to Selma,” said Lewis, who was leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). “SNCC had been in Selma since 1962. [Civil rights activist] Bernard Lafayette had gone into Selma, and he was beaten up.”
Then, 90 miles north in Birmingham, the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed in an act of racist terrorism, killing four black girls on a Sunday in 1963. That tragedy accelerated the movement’s work.
“It was one of the saddest and darkest hours for me in the entire civil rights movement,” Lewis said. After that, writer James Baldwin, comedian Dick Gregory and Gregory’s wife, Lillian, came to Alabama to protest.
By the time King, who was seen as the national leader of the civil rights movement, focused his sights on Selma in 1965, local activists — including Lewis — were already working in the trenches. Some of the intense back and forth between different coalitions within the civil rights movement shows up in “Selma.”
King’s organization clashed with some of the SNCC leaders, who disagreed with the minister’s tactics. The young leaders had been working in Selma long before King came to town, and some disagreed with his strategy. Others thought he was flying in to take the credit for the ground they had laid. Lewis, who considered King his hero, welcomed him to Selma. Other young activists opposed the march.
“I took the position that we were part of the same movement, and even back then we couldn’t fight amongst ourselves,” Lewis recalled. He joined the march while others from SNCC sat out. “Out of that tension and conflict, for the most part, something good emerged.”
Lewis, now nearly 75 years old and the only surviving speaker from the iconic 1963 March on Washington — where King gave the “I Have a Dream” speech — has watched closely the burgeoning protest movement that has brought peaceful marchers to city streets around the country following grand jury decisions not to indict police officers in the shootings of unarmed black men.
“What is happening is not like a firecracker where you just come and pop off and make a lot of noise, and you’re gone,” Lewis said. “It’s more like a pilot light that continues to burn.”
Both he and the filmmakers find the timing of the film’s release fortuitous. The movie is, in many respects, an exploration of the doctrine of nonviolent protest. It meshes perfectly with Lewis’s advice to the young protest leaders who have been marching in recent weeks to “adhere to the philosophy and the discipline of nonviolence.”