Bloody Sunday memorial will pay homage to late civil rights giants

It was 50 years ago when a young John Lewis crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Lewis talks with AJC about that historic day and how it changed the Civil Rights movement. (Video by Ryon Horne/AJC)

Organizers on Monday announced plans for the March 7 celebration of those who survived the brutal day

SELMA, Ala. — This year’s commemoration of a pivotal moment in the fight for voting rights for African Americans will honor four giants of the civil rights movement who lost their lives in 2020, including the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis.

Organizers on Monday announced plans for the March 7 celebration that is being conducted differently this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

ExploreFrom 2020: Selma will commemorate 55 years since Bloody Sunday

The Rev. Joseph Lowery, C.T. Vivian, attorney Bruce Boynton and Lewis will be honored during the 56th annual commemoration of Bloody Sunday, the day in 1965 that civil rights marchers were brutally beaten on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge.

The four will be honored during the Martin & Coretta King Unity Breakfast on March 7 in Selma. The breakfast will be held as a drive-in, and people will remain in their cars during the breakfast while speakers will address the crowd from a stage.

There will then be a “slow drive” across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and wreaths will be placed honoring the four, former state Sen. Hank Sanders said.

ExploreFinal crossing: John Lewis' procession at Edmund Pettus bridge video and story

A horse-drawn caisson carries the body of Congressman John Lewis across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on July 26. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
A horse-drawn caisson carries the body of Congressman John Lewis across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on July 26. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Sanders said the COVID-19 pandemic did not allow the four to have large funerals with the exception of Lewis, who was honored with events in Georgia, Alabama and Washington D.C. The former Georgia congressman was beaten during Bloody Sunday.

“This is lifting the people who were on the battlefield for a long time, starting in the 1950s and continuing all of their lives. ... Those of us who are still living, particularly the young, need to take up the challenge and go forward because there is still so much to be done,” Sanders said.

ExploreFrom 2015: Fifty years later, John Lewis revisits Selma

Footage of the Bloody Sunday beatings helped galvanize support for passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This year’s commemoration comes as some states seek to roll back expanded early and mail-in voting access and efforts have been unsuccessful to restore a key section of the Voting Rights Act that required states with a history of discrimination to get federal approval for any changes to voting procedures.

Bernard LaFayette, who worked with all four, will speak at the breakfast, Sanders said.

While much of the annual Bridge Crossing celebration will be virtual this year, Sanders said they wanted to have events that people could safely attend.

Civil rights icons Joseph Lowery, C.T. Vivian and John Lewis.
Civil rights icons Joseph Lowery, C.T. Vivian and John Lewis.

Credit: AJC File

Credit: AJC File

Lowery, a charismatic and fiery preacher, is often considered the dean of the civil rights veterans and led the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Vivian began organizing sit-ins against segregation in the 1940s and later joined forces with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In 1965, Vivian led dozens of marchers to a courthouse in Selma, confronting the local sheriff on the courthouse steps and telling him the marchers should be allowed to register to vote. The sheriff responded by punching Vivian in the head.

ExploreThe freedom fighter: How Atlanta’s C.T. Vivian changed history

Boynton was arrested for entering the white part of a racially segregated bus station in Virginia, launching a chain reaction that ultimately helped to bring about the abolition of Jim Crow laws in the South. Boynton contested his conviction, and his appeal resulted in a U.S. Supreme Court decision that prohibited bus station segregation and helped inspire the Freedom Riders.

In Other News