John Lewis first came to Selma in 1963 as the 23-year-old national chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
More than 50 years later, Lewis keeps coming back to the Queen City, a place his name will be tied to for generations to come.
Lewis led the Bloody Sunday march on March 7, 1965, alongside the late Rev. Hosea Williams.
But Lewis and SNCC had been on the ground for a couple of years before then, helping the Dallas County Voters League register African Americans to vote.
“We made a decision to intensify in Alabama around the right to vote and Selma was the place,” Lewis said.
“[King] said, ‘Mr. President, we need a voting rights act.’ The president in so many words said he didn’t have the votes in Congress to get a voting rights act passed,” Lewis recalled. “He said, ‘If you want it, make me do it.’”
That meant going back to Selma and continuing the work being done to register voters in Dallas County.
Lewis remembered a particular day in January 1965 when Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark had him and other protestors arrested on the steps of the Dallas County Courthouse.
“He said to me, ‘John Lewis, you are an outside agitator, you are a troublemaker, you’re the lowest form of humanity.’ I said, ‘Sheriff, I may be an agitator, but I’m not an outsider. I grew up only 90 miles from here, and we are going to stay here until these people are allowed to register to vote.’”
The arrest was one of several times Lewis visited the Selma or Dallas County jails for peacefully protesting.
Lewis spent most of January and February of 1965 in Selma, except for a quick trip to Atlanta and another to New York to raise money for the cause.
“You do something else and go again. I remember being arrested at the county courthouse and a few days later at the federal courthouse,” Lewis said. “We thought since it was a federal building Sheriff Clark wouldn’t arrest us, but five or six of us were arrested and taken to jail.”
Lewis believes he was away the day Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot in Marion but remembers well the day of his funeral.
“I remember during the day of the funeral it rained. Someone had the idea that we should have a march, and that’s where the whole march came from [in honor of Jackson],” Lewis said.
The decision would prove to put Lewis in a difficult spot. The night before the Bloody Sunday march, other members of SNCC didn’t want to participate.
“[Some] suggested that Dr. King would come in, he would leave and we would be left holding the bag, [but] if they wanted to march, I was going to march with them,” Lewis said. “And so they suggested I had to march as an individual and not as the SNCC chair.”
Late that night, Lewis and others drove to a now abandoned home not far from downtown for a restless night’s sleep. The group woke up early and headed to Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church for morning worship. Afterward, they conducted a workshop on non-violent resistance and lined up to march.
Lewis continued to walk his own personal tightrope as he was asked to lead the march with the Rev. Williams.
Despite the possible controversy with other SNCC members, 25-year-old Lewis answered the call to help lead the 600 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
“To me the attempted march was one of the finest hours. It was like a holy march. People were so silent. There was military discipline,” Lewis said.
Nobody said a word from Brown Chapel until the marchers got to the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
“Hosea said, ‘John can you swim?’ and we saw all of this water, and I said, “No, what about you?’”
Williams answered back with a negative too.
“I said something like there’s too much water. We’re not going to jump. We are going to have to follow forward,” Lewis said.
The march continued across the bridge with Lewis carrying an Army surplus backpack. The protestors thought they would be arrested, so Lewis had packed two books to read, one apple and one orange along with toothpaste and a tooth brush.
“I thought I would be in jail with my friends — I wanted to be able to brush my teeth,” he said.
But the protestors met something more frightening than a short jail stay.
“We come to the highest point on the bridge and see the sea of blue — Alabama State Troopers and behind the state troopers we saw the men on horseback,” Lewis said. “We came within hearing distance and a man spoke up and said, ‘I’m Major John Cloud of the Alabama State Troopers. This is an unlawful march, and it will not be allowed to continue. I’ll give you three minutes to return to your homes or to your church.’”
Williams asked Cloud for a few minutes to pray for guidance on what to do next.
“The major said, ‘There will be no word … Troopers advance.’ You saw these men putting on their gas masks, and they came toward us — pushing, shoving and beating us,” Lewis said. “I was hit in the head by a state trooper with a nightstick. My legs were knocked out from under me. I went to the ground. I really thought I was going to die. I didn’t think I would make it back to the church.”
The tear gas was then set off, blinding and choking marchers as they struggled to get back across the bridge and to the safety of Brown Chapel.
“I was so concerned about the young people in the march and the women,” Lewis said.
Beaten and bloody Lewis doesn’t remember how he got back to Brown Chapel.
“The church was filled to capacity, hundreds of people trying to get in to protest what happened and someone asked me to say something to the audience,” Lewis said. “I stood up and said I don’t know how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam but can’t send troops to Selma to protect people whose only desire is to register people to vote.”
With that, Lewis was taken to the Good Samaritan Hospital to be treated for his head injuries, which resulted in a still visible scar.
But Selma has remained with Lewis in many more ways. He would go on to serve in the Jimmy Carter administration, on the Atlanta City Council and has represented Georgia’s 5th Congressional District for almost 30 years.
He often thinks back to his time in Selma and the impact Bloody Sunday made then and in the years to come.
“What happened in Selma changed not just the state of Alabama, it changed America, and it inspired people around the world, so in a sense Selma is more than a place. It’s more than a city. It’s more than a community. It’s almost an idea that invites people to stand up for what’s right and what’s fair and what’s just.”
His mind went back to the march on the night Barack Obama was elected president in 2008.
“The election of President Barack Obama meant everything to me. I was in Dr. King’s old church speaking that night when we looked at a screen, and I noticed Pennsylvania and Ohio had gone for him,” Lewis said. “I jumped so high I didn’t think my feet were going to touch the floor and I started crying. I was so moved, so happy, and I started to think about Selma, the march, the Voting Rights Act and Dr. King and countless individuals. I started thinking about all of the people who marched, who prayed and never got a chance to vote or didn’t live to see an African American elected president and I cried and I kept crying.”
On the day of Obama’s first inauguration, Lewis asked the President to write something in his program.
“He wrote, ‘Because of you, John’ — he was talking about Selma,” Lewis remembered.
In preparing for the 50th anniversary commemorative, Lewis invited Obama to join him for services in Selma.
“When I called him after sending him a letter, he said to me, “John, without Selma, I wouldn’t be in this White House.”