Rep. John Lewis marks historic civil rights moment, calls for future action

SELMA, ALABAMA – Civil rights leaders and “foot soldiers” launched the Bridge Crossing Jubilee Saturday with the commemoration of an event that changed America.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, Southern Poverty Law Center president Richard Cohen and state Sen. Hank Sanders were among those who called for continued efforts to condemn white supremacy and other forms of discrimination.

Cohen noted that the civil rights movement did not begin in 1954 with a significant federal ruling on school desegregation and didn't end with the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. 50 years ago. 

He said he believes there could be more “movement” martyrs in the coming years, but included a ray of hope when he said he was pleased by a joint congressional resolution “condemning white supremacy.”

“I am urging the president to condemn bigotry and use all his powers to fight back against the growing prevalence of hatred in our country.”

Lewis, an Alabama native who was badly beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, renewed his call for all Americans to “stand up, speak up and find a way to bring about change.”

“The people of Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma used everything they had to not only change those states, but to change America, too,” the Georgia congressman said.

Congressman John Lewis stands on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Sunday, March 4, 2018, in Selma, Ala., during the annual commemoration of "Bloody Sunday," the day in 1965 when voting rights protesters were attacked by police as they attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  (Photo: Albert Cesare/The Montgomery Advertiser via AP)

Credit: Albert Cesare

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Credit: Albert Cesare

Lewis, who recently celebrated his 78th birthday, took part in crossing the bridge again on Sunday.

“Now we go back to the bridge one more time after we meet at Brown Chapel Church just as we did in 1965,” he said Saturday. “There were 600 of us who marched across the bridge that day in a peaceful, nonviolent fashion when we were beaten.”

On what came to be known as "Bloody Sunday," March 7, 1965, was when Lewis was among those beaten by law enforcement officers while trying to march across the bridge.  Using clubs, whips and tear gas, state troopers drove the marchers back over the bridge. The attack spurred support for the civil rights movement throughout the nation and Congress for what became the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

This weekend, civil rights leaders from across America took part in a variety of activities in Selma, but some still worried about who is ready to take over the “movement’s” controls.

“(Racism) is still alive and well in this country, but, unfortunately, it appears to be in different form at times,” said Maynard Eaton, national communications director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

He said many of the civil rights leaders who helped change America for the better have passed away “and I wonder who will follow them.”

“Some people sit back and say everything is fine, but things are not fine,” Eaton said. “We gotta get back to work.”

Eaton said several female members of Congress are making a name for themselves and had special praise for U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, who grew up in Selma.

He said Sewell has the “style, class and panache” to move up in the Democrat Party and is “well suited for political greatness.”

Sanders, who recently announced plans to step down from his many years in the state Senate after his latest term ends, spent one of the busiest days of his long career on Saturday — going from one event to another, beginning early in the morning.

Last year’s Bridge Crossing Jubilee had a few problems, but municipal leaders and Sanders were able to iron them out in time for the re-enactment march across the Alabama River.

Famed designer Maya Lin, who created the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, also created the Civil Rights Memorial that is located across the street from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s office building in Montgomery.

A circular black granite table records the names of the martyrs and chronicles the history of the civil rights movement in lines that radiate like the hands of a clock.

Water emerges from the table’s center and flows evenly across the top.

On a curved black granite wall behind the table is engraved: “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

It is a well-known paraphrase of Amos 5:24 and was one of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s favorite biblical passages.

Like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Civil Rights Memorial invites visitors to touch the engraved names of the martyrs.

Lin envisioned the Memorial Plaza as a “contemplative area to remember the civil rights movement, to honor those killed during the struggle, to appreciate how far the country has come in its quest for equality and to consider how far it has to go.”

The memorial is located within walking distance of historic civil rights sites including the church where King was pastor during the year-long Montgomery Bus Boycott and the final leg of the Selma-to-Montgomery march.

The Civil Rights Memorial Center is adjacent to the memorial. In addition to exhibits pertaining to the movement, the center houses a 56-seat theater, a classroom for educational activities and the “Wall of Tolerance.”

Visitors who watched the Civil Rights Memorial program joined hands at the conclusion of the program and sang popular civil rights songs.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution information contributed to this article.