SELMA, Ala. — Fifty-five years ago, Alabama state troopers beat John Lewis and hundreds of protesters as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. On Sunday, troopers saluted the late civil rights leader after he made his final journey across the span.
A military honor guard moved the casket from the caisson to a hearse for the trip to Montgomery, where he will lie in state. Alabama state police were accompanying Lewis to the capital.
“It is poetic justice that this time Alabama state troopers will see John to his safety,” Rep. Terri A. Sewell (D-Ala.) said.
The ceremony came on the second of six days of tributes to the son of sharecroppers, fighter for civil rights and lawmaker widely hailed as the conscience of Congress. Lewis (D-Ga.) died July 17 at the age of 80 after a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer six months earlier.
Hundreds had gathered along the route from the church to the bridge, some traveling hours to see Lewis’s final journey, others lining up in the early morning. They spoke of progress on race since the 1960s, the height of the civil rights movement, and how far the nation still must go to achieve equality.
“I don’t think we would be where we are if not for him and what happened on the Pettus Bridge,” said Patrice Houston, a 57-year-old retiree from Atlanta who was in place at 7:30 a.m. and recalled meeting Lewis.
“We have evolved as a country. But we’re still fighting for our rights — the right to live, for health care. The right to be an equal.”
John White, 63, who owns an appliance repair company in Alachua, Fla., drove 6½ hours to be in Selma.
Lewis “opened doors for what we have today,” White said. “He was an inspiration to the younger generation, teaching about equality and making this a better place for all.”
The honors began Saturday in Lewis’s birthplace of Troy, Ala., with prayers, family recollections, songs and a plea to carry on his legacy of fighting for a more just society. It will end Thursday with a service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached.
In between, Lewis will lie in state in two state capitols — Montgomery and Atlanta — and in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, where the nation has paid tribute to past presidents, lawmakers and other distinguished citizens, including civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks in 2005.
Lewis’s crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge 55 years ago was a defining moment for a nation and the young activist. The ceremony on Sunday came amid a national reckoning over systemic racism in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, a black man, and weeks of protests nationwide.
On March 7, 1965, Lewis, then the 25-year-old chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, led about 600 protesters in a march across the bridge for civil rights. State troopers beat the demonstrators, and Lewis suffered a cracked skull on what became known as Bloody Sunday.
“I was hit in the head by a state trooper with a nightstick,” Lewis said decades later. “I really believe to this day that I saw death.”
Within months, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which was meant to end the obstacles preventing black people from voting.
In subsequent years, Lewis has led an annual march of Republicans and Democrats and current and former presidents across the bridge. Most notably, in 2015 on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, he walked across the span with the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama; former president George W. Bush; and many of the foot soldiers of the 1960s movement.
“We just need to open our eyes and our ears and our hearts to know that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us,” Obama said then. “We know the march is not yet over; we know the race is not yet won. We know reaching that blessed destination where we are judged by the content of our character requires admitting as much.”
On Sunday, Lawrence Wofford, 71, of Selma drew parallels between the protests of the 1960s for racial equality and the demonstrations of today.
Joseph Lowery “would say ‘everything has changed, and yet nothing has changed,’ ” Wofford said, invoking another late civil rights leader. “That [Bloody Sunday] was a piece of the systemic racism, and I think to some extent that young black men being killed by police officers is another sense of systemic racism that we have to deal with.”
In the days since Lewis’s death, there have been renewed calls for Congress to act on voting rights and name the legislation in Lewis’s honor. In 2013, the Supreme Court invalidated a crucial component of the landmark law, ruling that Congress had not taken into account the nation’s racial progress when citing certain states for federal oversight. The House passed legislation in December to restore those protections, but the bill has languished in the GOP-led Senate.
There also have been calls to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge for Lewis. Pettus was a Confederate officer and a grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.
At the service at Troy University on Saturday, Lewis’s flag-draped casket was carried by men in masks, and attendees were seated six feet apart, a reminder that the country is still in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed nearly 150,000 Americans, a disproportionate number from low-income, minority communities.
On Sunday, vendors sold “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts, commemorative Lewis shirts and masks. Police officers from Montgomery had black stripes across their badges in memory of Lewis.
David Gourdine made an eight-hour trip from Clearwater, Fla., with his wife and sons, attended the viewing Saturday night and watched the procession on Sunday.
“I won the biological DNA lottery when I was born as a white male in this country. You try to learn, try to see something from someone else’s point of view,” Gourdine said.
Angela Hunter, 49, of Selma said today’s protests echo the demonstrations of half a century ago.
“It’s repeating itself. But I believe it will be better sooner or later,” Hunter said. Asked how change will occur, she responded: “It will take the mighty hand of God.”
Colby Itkowitz in Washington contributed to this report.