At 25, John Lewis was already more than five years removed from his first sit-in, having been jailed and beaten many times before.
He expected jail once again on an overcast day 50 years ago, as the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee led two solemn columns of voting rights marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Revisiting the place and the moment last month, ahead of Saturday’s anniversary, Lewis recalled filling his backpack that day with an apple, an orange, two books, a toothbrush and toothpaste. It was preparation for a cell, not a fractured skull.
What happened next helped make Lewis into an icon of the civil rights movement, and 50 years later it remains embedded in his work in the U.S. House.
“Selma was the highest point in the movement for me,” Lewis said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“It was so orderly. It was so peaceful. It was like military discipline … the precision. People marched with a sense of dignity and pride. Somehow it was almost like a dream that we would make it to Montgomery.”
Keeping story alive
On Bloody Sunday, they barely made it over the bridge.
In a small museum nearby, troopers knock Lewis to the ground in news footage that plays in a haunting loop. The Oscar-nominated film “Selma” dramatized it on the big screen – a jarring, nasty, broad daylight assault by police officers and townspeople on the defenseless marchers.
Using clubs, whips and tear gas, they drove the marchers back over the bridge. Fifty-eight people were treated for injuries at a nearby hospital.
The attack spurred support throughout the nation and Congress for what became the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The story now is well known. President Barack Obama will tell it again Saturday at the bridge. Lewis, a 15-term U.S. House Democrat from Atlanta, will bring along nearly 100 of his colleagues in Congress to mark this historic time.
On a chilly February morning he told it again and again to a slew of media outlets. Police officers blocked traffic on the bridge so Lewis could walk and talk with nodding television anchors. The marchers were not so disruptive 50 years ago, Lewis noted, when they marched two abreast on the sidewalk.
“I feel that I have a responsibility to help keep it alive, but there are other people, people younger than I am, that were on the bridge,” Lewis said. “I will tell the story, continue to tell it to the best of my abilities. I do feel like I have been left here for a purpose.”
Ties to Selma are lasting
Though Lewis grew up 90 miles away in Troy, Selma claims him as much as anywhere. A plaque bearing his image stands with a few other markers near the patch of grass where the marchers were attacked.
“I love John Lewis,” said James Perkins, the first African-American mayor of Selma, recalling an unannounced visit by the congressman to celebrate Perkins’ 2000 inauguration.
U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., grew up in Selma hearing tales about Lewis, then was elected in 2010 to be his colleague.
“Sometimes, I have to pinch myself,” Sewell said.
But Lewis’ return is not without controversy. Each year, the Bloody Sunday march over the bridge is conducted on a Sunday, but Obama will come to town — at Lewis’ invitation — on Saturday, the 50th anniversary of the march.
“I didn’t get beat and I don’t have scars from Bloody Saturday,” said Lynda Lowery, 64, of Selma, who recently wrote a book about participating in big civil rights moments as a teenager. “I got beat and I have scars from Bloody Sunday.”
Lowery said the local resident “foot soldiers” should be at the front of the line each year — not a bunch of camera-hogging congressmen.
As a result of a compromise, the march re-enactment from Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church over the bridge will take place on Sunday as usual, without the members of Congress. Obama will speak but not march as part of a program with the congressional delegation on Saturday.
A time of reflection. Could action follow?
Lewis’ has coaxed a record number of members of Congress on his annual pilgrimage, conducted through the Washington-based nonprofit Faith and Politics Institute, including a bumper crop of Republicans. In addition to Selma, the group will stop in Birmingham, Montgomery and Marion — where the killing of black protester Jimmie Lee Jackson by a white state trooper helped inspire the Selma marches.
Democrats and activists will use the moment to push an update to the Voting Rights Act that would create a new formula to once again require some states — including Georgia, at first — to submit any new voting laws to the Justice Department. The U.S. Supreme Court essentially halted “pre-clearance” in a 2013 ruling striking down the Voting Rights Act’s coverage formula.
“We all have miles to go before we sleep,” Sewell told the congregation at Brown Chapel at a ceremony honoring the foot soldiers of 1965. “We must restore full protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That is a chore that Congress must take seriously.”
Last week, after winning the Oscar for a song from the “Selma” film, singer John Legend said “we know that the Voting Rights Act that they fought for 50 years ago is being compromised right now in this country, today.”
The new bill has so far garnered little Republican support.
“They say that it’s real transforming for them,” Sewell told the AJC of Republicans touring civil rights sites in Alabama. “But the proof is in the pudding.”
U.S. Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala., who is helping to lead the trip, prefers it to focus on the past.
“It will be an amazing experience and a time for reflection with our colleagues,” Roby told USA Today. “I think this is a time to focus on that and not let other issues of specific legislation … take away from the bipartisanship of the trip.”
Lewis predicted a “very moving” experience for Democrats and Republicans in the touring delegation.
For Lewis, there is nostalgia aplenty. He recalled the now-struggling downtown as a bustling center of commerce for the Black Belt agricultural region.
During the years of work in Selma building up to the Montgomery march, Lewis and his friends were thrown in jail a few times. When they got out, they would head to a small club and fire up the jukebox, three songs for a quarter.
Standing on the bridge once again last month, Lewis heard only a few passing cars, rather than the crack and hiss of tear gas canisters.
“Selma is so quiet,” said the man whose life has been anything but.