BY JUSTIN PELIGRI
Rep. John Lewis (D – Ga.) was seriously injured in the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. exactly 50 years ago this weekend– and the scars are still visible.
Now, on the anniversary of the protests to secure African American voting rights in the South, the 14-term congressman shared his memories of Selma – and thoughts on the current state of race relations – with Chuck Todd for NBC’s “Meet The Press.”
“When I go back, I – remember, the bridge for me is almost a sacred place,” he said, referring to the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge the protesters crossed on March 7, 1965. “'Cause that's where some of us gave a little blood and where some people almost died. “
On that day, known as “Bloody Sunday,” state troopers met protesters on the bridge with tear gas and violent attacks, resulting in serious injuries and numerous hospitalizations.
“They started beating us with night sticks, tramping us with horses and releasing the tear gas. I was hit in the head by a state trooper with a night stick. I lost consciousness,” he told Todd. “Fifty years later, I don't recall how I made it back across that bridge to the little church that we had left from.”
The protests – immortalized on national television and newspaper front pages, and now highlighted in the 2014 film, “Selma” – prompted a statement from then-President Lyndon Johnson deploring the police brutality. Shortly thereafter on March 15, 1965, Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act in a speech before Congress.
“That bridge – what happened on that Sunday have changed America forever,” Lewis said.
He is one of a dwindling number of living political leaders who were active in the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. And he’s also a chief organizer of a return to Selma event hosted annually by the Faith and Politics Institute, a nonpartisan group that hosts retreats and other events for members of Congress.
This year, the institute will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act. Numerous lawmakers will be in attendance at Selma – but notably absent will be members of the House Republican leadership.
“I wish we had someone in the [Republican] leadership going,” Lewis told Politico. “President Bush is going to be there, but I think it would have been fitting and appropriate for them to make the trip.”
Reports indicate that the pilgrimage – which boasts a record number of Congressional attendees – includes the largest contingent of Republicans since 1998 when the event was first hosted.