The year was 1965. Segregation was the established law of the land in the south. Good old American Apartheid was in full and brutal effect in Dixie. Jim Crow, the Southern system of terror designed to subjugate Black people after Reconstruction, was rock solid and seemed like it would last forever. Codified into law, Black disenfranchisement was total and the order of the day.
Born to sharecroppers on February 21, 1940, in rural Troy, Alabama, John Lewis was born into a world where White supremacy and domination was absolute. Morally bankrupt but held in place by the participation and silence of the majority of whites in the south, the status quo relegated Black folks to permanent second-class status.
John Lewis was determined to change that. Beginning his activism as a teenager, John Lewis devoted his entire life to the cause of justice, freedom and equality for all. John Lewis put his life and his principles on the line repeatedly for the noble goal of registering Black people to vote. His dedication to the cause led to him becoming the youngest person to speak at the March on Washington in 1963, where Civil Rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. gave his historic “I Have A Dream” speech.
On March 7, 1965 John Lewis and Hosea Williams attempted to shepherd a righteous contingent of 600 Black folks from the Brown Chapel AME Church across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama for the first of three Selma to Montgomery marches. The march was called in response to the coldblooded murder of Black veteran and civil rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson by an Alabama state trooper on February 26, 1965.
John Lewis, who died this past Friday, was just 25 years old at the time. As he approached the end of the bridge on that fateful day that would become known as Bloody Sunday, he could see the armies of animosity and oppression arrayed against him right before his eyes. Unarmed except for his faith in his cause, John Lewis stood in defiance as mounted Alabama State Troopers charged the praying demonstrators, using tear gas and beating the peaceful protesters with nightsticks. John Lewis himself was brutally beaten and his skull bore a scar from the attack for the rest of his life. His actions that day led directly to the passage of the federal Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965.
We as a society finds ourselves back on the proverbial bridge once again confronting the forces of hatred, racism and xenophobia. Let the example, spirit and legacy of John Lewis lead us forward.
Pa’lante, Siempre Pa’lante!