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“I Thought I Saw Death”: John Lewis Remembers Police Attack on Bloody Sunday in Selma 50 Years Ago

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Thousands of people are expected to travel to Selma, Alabama, this weekend for the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” when hundreds of peaceful voting rights activists were attacked by police crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge as they attempted to march to Montgomery on March 7, 1965. Bloody Sunday was the first of three attempted marches from Selma to Montgomery, which was finally completed under federal protection and led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. One of the protesters beaten on Bloody Sunday was Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, then a 25-year-old organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. “I was hit in the head by a state trooper with a nightstick. I had a concussion at the bridge,” Lewis said. “My legs went out from under me. I felt like I was going to die. I thought I saw Death. All these many years later, I don’t recall how I made it back across that bridge to the church.”

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Video squareStoryMar 10, 2015“I Am, Because We Are, Because Selma Was”: Voices From Historic Bloody Sunday March
Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Thousands of people are expected to travel to Selma, Alabama, this weekend for the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when hundreds of peaceful voting rights activists were attacked by police, crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge as they attempted to march to Montgomery. The date was March 7, 1965. Bloody Sunday was the first of three attempted marches from Selma to Montgomery, which was finally completed under federal protection and led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. One of the protesters beaten on Bloody Sunday was Congressman John Lewis, then a 25-year-old organizer with SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

JOHN LEWIS: I was beaten by state troopers, knocked to the ground. And I was in the hospital [inaudible] until about an hour ago.

AMY GOODMAN: In 2012, I had a chance to sit down with Congressmember John Lewis, now an esteemed member of Congress, who will lead a congressional delegation to Selma this weekend. I asked him to talk about that day in Selma, Bloody Sunday.

REP. JOHN LEWIS: On March 7, 1965, a group of us attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to dramatize to the nation that people wanted to register to vote. One young African-American man had been shot and killed a few days earlier, in an adjoining county called Perry County—this is in the Black Belt of Alabama—the home county of Mrs. Martin Luther King Jr., the home county of Mrs. Ralph Abernathy, the home county of Mrs. Andrew Young. And because of what happened to him, we made a decision to march.

In Selma, Alabama, in 1965, only 2.1 percent of blacks of voting age were registered to vote. The only place you could attempt to register was to go down to the courthouse. You had to pass a so-called literacy test. And they would tell people over and over again that they didn’t or couldn’t pass the literacy test. On one occasion, a man was asked to count the number of bubbles on a bar of soap. On another occasion, a man was asked to count the number of jellybeans in a jar. There were African-American lawyers, doctors, teachers, housewives, college professors flunking this so-called literacy test. And we had to change that, so we sought to march.

And we got to the top of the bridge. We saw a sea of blue—Alabama state troopers—and we continued to walk. We came within hearing distance of the state troopers. And a man identified himself and said, “I’m Major John Cloud of the Alabama state troopers. This is an unlawful march. It will not be allowed to continue. I give you three minutes to disperse and return to your church.” And one of the young people walking with me, leading the march, a man by the name of Hosea Williams, who was on the staff of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., said, “Major, give us a moment to kneel and pray.” And the major said, “Troopers, advance!” And you saw these guys putting on their gas masks. They came toward us, beating us with nightsticks and bullwhips, trampling us with horses.

I was hit in the head by a state trooper with a nightstick. I had a concussion at the bridge. My legs went out from under me. I felt like I was going to die. I thought I saw Death. All these many years later, I don’t recall how I made it back across that bridge to the church. But after I got back to the church, the church was full to capacity, more than 2,000 people on the outside trying to get in to protest what had happened on the bridge. And someone asked me to say something to the audience. And I stood up and said something like: “I don’t understand it, how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam but cannot send troops to Selma, Alabama, to protect people whose only desire is to register to vote.” The next thing I knew, I had been admitted to the local hospital in Selma.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain that moment where you decided to move forward, because I don’t think the history we learn records those small acts that are actually gargantuan acts of bravery. Talk about—I mean, you saw the weapons the police arrayed against you. What propelled you forward, Congressmember Lewis?

REP. JOHN LEWIS: Well, my mother, my father, my grandparents, my uncles and aunts, and people all around me had never registered to vote. I had been working all across the South. The state of Mississippi had a black voting age population of more than 450,000, and only about 16,000 were registered to vote. On that day, we didn’t have a choice. I think we had been tracked down by what I call the spirit of history, and we couldn’t—we couldn’t turn back. We had to go forward. We became like trees planted by the rivers of water. We were anchored. And I thought we would die. I first thought we would be arrested and go to jail, but I thought it was a real possibility that some of us would die on that bridge that day, after the confrontation occurred. I thought it was the last protest for me. But somehow and someway, you have to keep going. You go to a hospital, you go to a doctor’s office, you get mended, and you get up and try it again.

AMY GOODMAN: So what was the next act you engaged in?

REP. JOHN LEWIS: Well, we continued to organize, continued to try to get people registered. We went to federal court, testified, to get an injunction against Governor George Wallace and the Alabama state troopers. And the federal court said that we had a right to march from Selma to Montgomery. President Johnson spoke to the nation and condemned the violence in Selma, introduced the Voting Rights Act. And that night, he made one of the most meaningful speeches that any American president had made in modern times on the whole question of civil rights and voting rights. He condemned the violence over and over again, and near the end of the speech he said, “And we shall overcome. We shall overcome.” We call it the “We Shall Overcome” speech.

I was sitting next to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as we listened to President Johnson. I looked at Dr. King. Tears came down his face. He started crying. And we all cried a little when we heard the president saying, “We shall overcome.” And Dr. King said, “We will make it from Selma to Montgomery, and the Voting Rights Act will be passed.” Two weeks later, more than 10,000 of us, people from all over America, started walking from Selma to Montgomery. And by the time we made it to Montgomery five days later, there were almost 30,000 black and white citizens—Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, men, women, young people. It was like a holy march. And the Congress debated the act, passed it, and on August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember John Lewis, remembering 50 years ago tomorrow. He was one of the leaders of the march, had his head bashed in by Alabama state troopers, among with scores of other people who were wounded. He will lead a pilgrimage to Selma tomorrow. Democracy Now! will be there and broadcast from Alabama on Monday. The Edmund Pettus Bridge is named for a Confederate general who escaped three times from capture. He was also grand dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan, as well as a U.S. senator. The group Students Unite have launched a petition to change the name of the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to Chicago to speak with the challenger of the current mayor, Rahm Emanuel, Chuy García. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Again, we’ll be broadcasting from Alabama on Monday, from Montgomery, Alabama, so tune in then. And a shout-out to the students who have come to visit us today from Democracy Prep High School in Harlem, New York. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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