REP. JOHN LEWIS: I called it good trouble. I called it necessary trouble. And every so often, when you see something that is not right, not fair, not just — you have to say no, no.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: Hi, I’m Jonathan Capehart and welcome to Voices of the Movement, a series from my podcast ‘Cape Up’ sharing stories of some of the leaders of the civil rights movement and their lessons, and where we go from here.
If you’ve ever heard Rep. John Lewis speak, you may have heard him say this phrase about “good trouble, necessary trouble” when talking about the famous march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. — a march that turned violent and became forever known as “Bloody Sunday.”
In order to understand Bloody Sunday, you have to know how Lewis and 600 other marchers got to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the first place — and why.
ANDREW YOUNG: Let me tell you a story that’s been bothering me ...
CAPEHART: You may remember Andrew Young from the first episode of this series. He was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s chief strategist at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
On the first night of the Sunnylands civil rights retreat I happened to have my phone recording while people were doing introductions, and Young got to telling this remarkable story about one day in 1964.
YOUNG: Coming back from Martin’s Nobel Prize trip, we stopped off in Washington. We were scheduled to see President [Lyndon B.] Johnson.
CAPEHART: King and Young were set to meet the president to talk about passing a voting rights act.
YOUNG: So we went in and made a case for voting rights and President Johnson said he agreed with everything Martin said, but [that] he just didn’t have the power. He must have said at least 10 times in the conversation, “I agree with you Dr. King; I just don’t have the power.”
CAPEHART: A few months earlier, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 after the Birmingham Campaign drew Americans’ attention to the civil rights movement.
And President Johnson didn’t see how he could go back to Congress and ask for another big vote on civil rights. He argued [that] nobody in Congress had the appetite for it.
So King and Young leave the meeting.
YOUNG: I agreed with the President. We came out and I said this, and [Martin] said no and I said, “Well, what are you gonna do?” and he said, “We gonna get the president some power.” I said, “Come on.” I mean that’s the height of arrogance, you gonna get the president some power. He kept saying how, and I realized he was serious. But we didn’t have a clue as to how we were going to get the president some . . . maybe he did, but I don’t think he did. But he was determined that something had to happen.
CAPEHART: They set their sights on Selma, Ala.
See, even though the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbade discrimination in voting on the basis of race, efforts to register African Americans to vote was still met with heavy resistance in places like Alabama.
The state set up so-called literacy tests that determined African Americans couldn’t read or write — by giving them impossible tests that had little to do with their ability to read or write.
And so, one day in February 1965, some civil rights activists in Alabama were marching for their voting rights when their protest was attacked by a mob of white segregationists.
One of those activists, Jimmie Lee Jackson, was beaten and shot to death by an Alabama state trooper.
YOUNG: Jimmie Lee Jackson got shot. It was a deliberate act of evil coming from the society we were confronting. But it was that act of evil that pushed us to think about marching from Selma to Montgomery. Others were already talking about moving to Montgomery because we had kind of worn out the people of Selma.
CAPEHART: Andrew Young and Hosea Williams, another member of the SCLC, helped organize a march starting in Selma with the goal of making it to the state Capitol in Montgomery.
YOUNG: We set up to march for the second sunday in March. And everybody thought that the second Sunday in March was the 7th of March. But the preachers knew that was the first Sunday and so they were not there. And here people show up ready to march and none of the big shot preachers are there. We decided that we ought to turn them around. Nobody wanted to turn around and we couldn’t put it off so I said, “They probably just going to arrest us.” He said, “Well don’t you go.” But anyway, we flipped coins, ended up going with John Lewis.
LEWIS: Yes, it was the Edmund Pettus Bridge, crossing the Alabama River. We were on our way from Selma to Montgomery to dramatize to the nation and to the world that the black people and the black belt of Alabama wanted to register to vote, to participate in the democratic process. People had to pass a so-called literacy test. People were told they could not read or write well enough. People were asked to count the number of bubbles in a bar of soap, the number of jellybeans in a jar. There was African American lawyers and doctors, college professors, teachers, who flunked their so-called literacy tests. We had to do it.
CAPEHART: I spoke with Congressman John Lewis last year for an episode of Cape Up.
If you’ve seen the iconic photograph of Lewis marching on the bridge that day, you know he was wearing a light trench [coat] and a backpack. As a seasoned demonstrator, he always anticipated being arrested. So, in that backpack was an orange, some books, toothbrush and toothpaste.
LEWIS: And I also had an apple.
CAPEHART: Right. And an apple. Because you just knew.
LEWIS: Well, I thought we would be arrested, and we would be going to jail, so I wanted to have something to read. I wanted to have something to eat. Since I was going to be in jail with my friends and colleagues and neighbors, I wanted to be able to brush my teeth. All these many years later, I don’t know what happened to the backpack, to the apple, the orange, or the toothpaste or the toothbrush, but we had to march that day. We had to walk across that bridge.
LEWIS: We got on the other side of the bridge. There was a group of state troopers standing, and the major said — the Alabama State Police, “This is an unlawful march; it would not be allowed to continue. I’ll give you three minutes to disburse and return to your homes or to your church.” And one of the guys walking with me, leading the march, by the name of Hosea Williams, said, “Major, give us a moment to kneel and pray,” and the major said again, “Troopers, advance.” And I said, “Major, may I have a word?” He said, “There will be no word. Troopers, advance.” You saw these guys putting on their gas masks. They came toward us, beating us with nightsticks, tramping us with horses.
I was hit in the head by a state trooper with a nightstick. My legs went from under me; I thought I saw death; I thought I was going to die. And to this day, I don’t know how I made it back across that bridge to the streets of Selma, back to the little church where we had left from. But I do remember being back at the church. They asked me to say something, and I stood up and said, “I don’t understand it, that President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam, but cannot send troops to Selma, Alabama, to protect people who only desires to register to vote.” And I was hospitalized with 16 other people, and a group of nuns took care of us.
YOUNG: That Bloody Sunday was a cold day in March in New England.
CAPEHART: Reflecting on that time, Andrew Young believes there was a reason why what happened on the Edmund Pettus Bridge that day captured the American imagination.
YOUNG: And the movie that had been showing that afternoon was “Judgment at Nuremberg.” And they came out of the movies and saw Bloody Sunday in their living rooms. . . . It was an accident. None of that could be planned. This is a series of accidents.
CAPEHART: On March 15, eight days after Bloody Sunday, President Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress. The speech he made is widely regarded by presidential historians as one of the best presidential addresses ever delivered.
PRESIDENT JOHNSON: Their cause must be our cause, too. Because it’s not just negroes. But really it’s all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome. [applause]
YOUNG: Somehow with nothing but some kind of mysterious spiritual intuition -- I don’t even know what to call it -- Martin got Johnson the power.
CAPEHART: Six days after President Johnson’s historic address, Martin Luther King was joined by 2,000 people in Selma. The group was not going to let the violence from the previously attempted march scare them from completing the original plan to march from the Edmund Pettus Bridge to the state Capitol.
The historic march from Selma to Montgomery took 12 days and covered 50 miles. And, by the time King arrived at the Alabama state Capitol — this time under federal protection — the march had swelled to 50,000 people.
Four months later, Congress would pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that guaranteed the right to vote to all African Americans.
For the past 54 years, John Lewis has been going back to that bridge. Back to Selma and Montgomery. He visits the places where history was made. And he reflects on the journey and the lessons we can learn from it.
And starting in 1998, working with the Faith and Politics Institute, Lewis starting bringing members of Congress with him. It’s called the Civil Rights Pilgrimage to Alabama. I’ve been on it three times now. Each time more powerful than the last.
The journey is as much a somber remembrance as it is a celebration of what was achieved. It is three jam-packed days of history with the people who made it — in the rooms and the churches and along the highways where it all happened.
The 16th Street Baptist Church that was bombed in Birmingham in 1963.
Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, where Martin Luther King was pastor.
Brown Chapel in Selma, where the Bloody Sunday marchers gathered before and after that fateful day.
But every year the emotional core of the entire trip comes on day two, when we walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge — with John Lewis.
CAPEHART: So this is day two of the pilgrimage to Selma, Montgomery and Birmingham. For me now, half the fun is watching people to see the ones who are overwhelmed. The ones who are overwhelmed are the ones who get it.
By the time we got to the top of that bridge, we’d been marching hand-in-hand, singing songs of the movement for a little while now. And we stopped to listen to Lewis.
LEWIS: Thank you for being here.
CAPEHART: And then Sheyann Webb told her story … on Bloody Sunday, she snuck out of the house to join the march. Then just 8 years old, the youngest person to participate in the march.
SHEYANN WEBB: I’ll never forget, as I was running, looking at others running, the late Hosea Williams picked me up and my feet were still galloping in his arms and I turned to him, I was very serious as tear gas was burning my eyes. And I said to him in my own childish voice, “Put me down, because you’re not running fast enough.”
CAPEHART: And then Bettie Mae Fikes — known as “the voice of Selma” — told her story.
BETTIE MAE FIKES: And all of a sudden, the ground under me started shaking like an earthquake. The posse was on horses and beating on our bodies like they were playing water polo. You could hear the cracks. Old women being knocked down. And all I can say is, “Lord, where are you? Where are you?” But we led it in songs . . . [begins singing]
CAPEHART: If you listen carefully you’ll hear what I think was one the most powerful moments of this year’s pilgrimage happening . . .
CAPEHART: Yeah, right there . . .
CAPEHART: That is the sound of Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester of Delaware sobbing as she was overcome with the emotion of the moment. Her initial wail was so startling, so human, that I had to talk to her about it later.
So when we got back to Washington, I went to her office to talk to her about what happened.
LISA BLUNT ROCHESTER: This was my second time on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. I had gone on this same trip two years ago, and it was moving for me then. But this time, it was more moving and more pivotal.
And so I’m listening to John Lewis and and I’ve heard some of these stories before because some of them are seared in my heart. And I’m listening to a comment about . . . that rumbling. You could feel the shaking of the ground almost with all of these people running during that time and, for some reason, I could feel it. I could physically feel the rumbling of the bridge and all of these people who during that time were fighting for the rights that we have today. The ability for me to even stand on that bridge as a congresswoman . . . and then Bettie Mae Fikes. Oh, my goodness. She started singing “Come by here, Lord, come by here.”
That’s when I lost it because, in that moment, I just felt like babies were taken from parents during slavery; we had seen that in the museum . . . but we’re witnessing it today. And I just kept thinking about the parallels. And I thought about Charlottesville and I thought about — I just thought about the past two years and how much weight has been put on us as Americans. And and I just sobbed. I sobbed for our history. I wept for where we are today. And when [Reps.] Deb Haaland and Veronica Escobar put their hands on me, it was healing. It was healing. It was like these three different cultures coming together. I got your back, you know, and I could feel that in that in that moment. I could even feel people around me. They started putting their hands on me. And you know, you felt this. We’re in it together. I know that that’s what lifted me back up — that we are in this together.
CAPEHART: Do you think you would have shown or could have shown the kind of courage John Lewis showed back to them?
ROCHESTER: I would hope I would have. But I know for myself, even as a kid, like my first protest — I was in the seventh grade and I remember leading a protest because the school I was going to allowed the boys to have gym. We had a shortened day and they allowed the boys to have gym, but not the girls. And I started this chant at recess. I gave it to them. “Now we want gym,” and [we] wouldn’t leave the playground. And, you know, it’s part of what young people do. But what they did was put their lives on the line like it wasn’t comfortable, you know. And and that’s why it’s so so significant. You know what they did was put their lives on the line.
I hope that I would have. I know, even in this role today, there are folks that you know it's part of . . . what you have to do is step up and speak up. And it's not always easy, but they put their lives on the line for us. And I am honored to be able to be serving with John Lewis. I mean can you imagine? I get to see him on the [House] floor. I get to talk to him. I watch him as he interacts with other people and he's just a real role model for for a different kind of leadership. I love how he talks about getting into “good trouble.”
He can say things and be very clear about it and very strong about it, but not mean about it. And I think in a time like this, people crave that. I do. I love that kind of leadership where it is truly about love, that radical love that they talked about. That Dr. King talked about. That’s really what it’s about. That’s what it’s all about love.
CAPEHART: During our interview last year on Cape Up, Rep. Lewis explained why he makes the annual tip to Alabama.
CAPEHART: You know, a couple of times now — two years in a row now — I’ve gone on the Faith and Politics Civil Rights Pilgrimage that you lead, and to be on the bus with you and hear you with the microphone pointing out points of interest, telling stories, reminiscing. . . . You’ve been doing this now . . . I’ve only done it two years. You’ve been doing this pilgrimage for at least 15 years?
LEWIS: Twenty years.
CAPEHART: Twenty years.
LEWIS: But I’ve been going back every year since 1965, except for one. You have to go back. You get young people, and people who are not so young, to go back, to understand, to learn, to be inspired — that when they see something that is not right or fair or just, they, too, can do something or say something. You have to go back.
CAPEHART: And at no point do you ever feel burdened by the history that you have lived, that you embody, that is literally within your lifetime, my lifetime, most of the nation’s lifetime?
LEWIS: Well, it’s just so much happened in Alabama, in Mississippi, in Georgia and other parts of the South that people need to know about it. And the highlight going back there was the 50th anniversary, walking across the bridge with the first African American president, Barack Obama.
I think we both were deeply moved by just walking together across that bridge.
I was saying to myself, “This is it. If someone had told me and told others when we walked across that bridge — the 600 of us — that one day in our lifetime we would be walking across that bridge in the presence of the first African American president,” just being there with President Obama made me cry, and I think he teared up, too.
But, in the final analysis, we will make it. There are more bridges to cross, but we will make it, and it will be the young people — the children — that will help us get there, in spite of all that is going on today. I just believe deeply within it’s just a matter of time, that fate and history will come together. And we will get there.
CAPEHART: Coming up on Voices of the Movement, participants in the Sunnylands retreat and the Selma pilgrimage help explore how the themes of the past and the present connect.