John Lewis stood with his backpack over his shoulders and his hands in the pockets of his trench coat. The 25-year-old’s eyes were fixed on the line of Alabama state troopers with billy clubs in their hands and gas masks covering their faces. The date was Sunday, March 7, 1965.
Voices of the Movement, Episode 4: John Lewis and Andrew Young tell the story of Bloody Sunday in Selma
A week later, President Lyndon B. Johnson spoke before a joint session of Congress. “What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too,” said Johnson, who signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law five months after “Bloody Sunday.” Coming after the adoption of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, this was another major victory in the civil rights movement that pushed to have America’s promise of equality, opportunity and justice also apply to its black citizens.
Early on Sunday morning in Washington, Lewis, now a Democratic congressman from Georgia, stood tall in a blue sweater with his arms crossed. Now 80 years old and battling stage 4 pancreatic cancer, his eyes were fixed on a photographer’s camera high atop a D.C. sanitation truck. Under Lewis’s feet was public art with a message. Stretching behind him in bold yellow letters that can be seen from space, the two-block-long asphalt canvas reads “BLACK LIVES MATTER.”
Commissioned by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who accompanied Lewis to the site, the painting is a public response to President Trump’s nationally televised bullying of those peacefully protesting the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis. Bowser also renamed the stretch of 16th Street NW “Black Lives Matter Plaza.” Not only was it a message of affirmation, Bowser told me on the sidewalk Sunday, “We’re on 16th Street Northwest, D.C., and we also had to reclaim this street.”
The cellphone video of Floyd’s death reignited an equal justice movement whose spark can be traced to Lewis’s generation. They organized and marched, sat in and refused to get up. They were attacked, jailed and murdered for it. And Lewis pretty much was part of all of it. Before the Selma-to-Montgomery march in 1965, he did sit-ins at lunch counters in Nashville in 1961. That same year, he was a part of the Freedom Rides that sought to enforce a Supreme Court ruling that integrated interstate travel and drew violent assaults from ardent segregationists and law enforcement. And a year and a half before “Bloody Sunday,” Lewis stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as the youngest speaker at the March on Washington in August 1963.
“We must say, ‘Wake up, America! Wake up!’ For we cannot stop, and we will not and cannot be patient,” said Lewis, the last living speaker at that historic march on the Mall. He hasn’t stopped in the 57 years since. The arc of his historic life of activism is captured in “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” a new documentary that will be released on July 3. And it is why he felt compelled to see Black Lives Matter Plaza with his own eyes, why he is buoyed by the renewed nationwide activism in the wake of Floyd’s death.
Lewis told me he was “inspired” to see thousands of people in the United States and around the world peacefully protesting against police violence. “It was so moving and so gratifying to see people from all over America and all over the world saying through their action, ‘I can do something. I can say something’,” he told me during an interview for my podcast, “Cape Up.” “And they said something by marching and by speaking up and speaking out.”
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Lewis told me he continues to think Trump “is a threat to our democracy and is a threat maybe even to the planet.” He also took a dim view of the president’s threat to unleash the military on American streets. “It was shameful. It’s a disgrace,” said Lewis. “It’s not in keeping with the best of America.” If Trump were to call him, Lewis would deliver a warning.
“Mr. President, the American people are tired and they cannot and will not take it anymore. They have a right to organize the unorganized. They have a right to protest in a peaceful, orderly, nonviolent fashion,” Lewis said he would tell Trump. “You cannot stop the people with all of the forces that you may have at your command. You cannot stop people when they say ‘no.’ You must have the power. Now use that power to say, ‘Yes.’ ”
Lewis, of all people, knows that the people now saying “no” will be met with setbacks and defeats. His life and work are a testament to the cyclical nature of history. His arrival at Black Lives Matter Plaza, the place where six days earlier the president unleashed federal police in riot gear on demonstrators peacefully protesting Floyd’s death, was a testament to the need for constant vigilance to protect hard fought gains.
This civil rights icon once said, “You only pass this way once, you gotta give it all you can.” So I asked him what he would say to people who feel as though they have already been giving it their all but nothing seems to change. Lewis responded with characteristic optimism and hope.
“You must be able and prepared to give until you cannot give any more,” Lewis said. “We must use our time and our space on this little planet that we call Earth to make a lasting contribution, to leave it a little better than we found it, and now that need is greater than ever before.”
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