REMEMBERING JOHN LEWIS--In 1965, as chair of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), 25-year-old John Lewis led 600 protesters on the first march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, to intensify pressure on Congress to pass a federal voting rights law.
Alabama state troopers, ordered to Selma by segregationist Gov. George Wallace, attacked the marchers as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge (photo above). Lewis was beaten so severely that his skull was fractured. “I thought I saw death. I thought I was going to die,” Lewis recalled later. That day, March 7, 1965, came to be known as “Bloody Sunday,” and television coverage of the massacre stirred the public’s conscience. Six months later, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.
Lewis would later become a 17-term member of Congress from Atlanta, and on Friday, he died of cancer at the age of 80. That night, Americans watched federal troops, sent by Donald Trump, invade Portland, Oregon, following 50 days of protest against police violence and racial injustice. Peaceful protesters were arrested, forced into unmarked cars, and detained in jail, despite the insistence by Oregon’s governor and Portland’s mayor that the troops were violating civil liberties and inflaming the situation, and should leave. At least one protester suffered a fractured skull at the hands of troops, just as Lewis did 55 years earlier. The Portland massacre is likely a trial run for similar actions in other cities. It is too soon to know if public outrage over Trump’s assault on basic rights will help stir voters to defeat him in November.
In 1965, Lewis was a young radical, impatient with the pace of change around racial injustice. At his death, he was still a radical, supportive of the new generation of activists and the upsurge of protests around the country since the Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd in March. Had he not been ill with cancer, he almost certainly would have participated in Black Lives Matter protests. As he told CBS in June about the nonviolent protest moment, “There will be no turning back.”
In a new documentary film, John Lewis: Good Trouble, scheduled for broadcast on CNN this fall, Lewis explained that he’d been arrested at least 45 times—five times since he was elected to Congress in 1986.