To Redeem the Soul of America

Lewis speaks to the crowd, including Warren, Sharpton and Buttigieg. Photo by Joshua Lott/AFP via Getty
Arguing, "We're one people, we're one family," tireless civil rights icon and "the conscience of Congress" John Lewis made a moving, surprise appearance Sunday at Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge, joining thousands marking the 55th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday," when 600 voting rights activists, including Lewis, were viciously attacked by club-wielding state troopers - a seminal moment in the civil rights movement that helped spur the Voting Rights Act. Also joining the commemorative march was every Democratic candidate but Bernie Sanders; all were welcomed except Mike Bloomberg, who at a church event met with protests for his history of condoning stop-and-frisk and other racist policies. Lewis, who is battling Stage 4 pancreatic cancer but still urged the crowd to "speak up, speak out, get in the way," was greeted as the principled hero he remains. On March 7, 1965, as a 25-year-old SNCC chairman, he led the march with Hosea Williams of SCLC; he had his skull fractured during the assault, and by his own count has been arrested more than 40 times during his years of getting into "good trouble." "Fifty-five years ago, a few of our children attempted to march (across) this bridge," he recalled in an emotional speech. "I thought I was going to die on this bridge. But somehow and some way, God almighty helped me here."
The 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery was planned to protest Alabama's voter suppression and the murder of activist Jimmie Lee Jackson. Famously, the marchers met with a wall of state troopers - helmets, gas masks, billy clubs - as they approached the bridge, named for a reputed KKK grand dragon. When a trooper announced, “It would be detrimental to your safety to continue this march,” Lewis and Williams stood their ground. Police, many on horseback, attacked with tear gas, clubs, whips, rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire. As marchers screamed and fell, white bystanders cheered and waved Confederate flags. Marchers retreated, with many injured; they did not fight back "so that who the oppressor was would be evident." News footage of the assault - which coincided with the airing of "Judgment At Nuremberg," inviting comparisons to Nazi stormtroopers - sparked national outrage and a wave of demonstrations. A few weeks later, Martin Luther King, who had planned to join the march en route, set out again under the protection of the National Guard, reaching Montgomery with 25,000 marchers. And that August, LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act, declaring, "We shall overcome." On Sunday, with those voting rights now imperiled, Lewis urged the crowd to use the vote as "a tool to redeem the soul of America." "We must go out and vote like we never, ever voted before," he said. "I'm not going to give up. I'm not going to give in. We're going to continue to fight." We do not deserve John Lewis, but we wish him well.
"To hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope." - Martin Luther King, paraphrasing scriptures
Marchers right before the police attack
Lewis gets his skull fractured

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