Forty-nine years after John Lewis and fellow marchers tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., the memories of “Bloody Sunday” are still vivid in his mind. It was one of the defining moments of the civil rights era.
“We were beaten, tear gassed, trampled and chased by men on horseback,” said Lewis, a civil rights activist and longtime Democratic congressman from Georgia. “Many of us accepted the way of nonviolence as a way of life, as a way of living. We were willing to be arrested, to be jailed. We accepted the beatings. And we never gave up.”
In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Lewis — who is portrayed by the actor Stephan James in the historical drama Selma — said the timing of the film’s release was fitting and appropriate after protests of grand jury decisions not to indict white police officers in the deaths of black men in Ferguson, Mo., and New York.
Selma, co-written and directed by Ava DuVernay, is based on the 1965 marches from the Alabama cities of Selma to Montgomery, led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The film has received critical acclaim and earned a Best Picture Oscar nomination. (DuVernay got snubbed in the Best Director category, however, and the film has come under fire for its portrayal of U.S. President Lyndon Johnson.)
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“It is very powerful. It is very moving. It is real. It is so real,” Lewis said. “It says something about the distance we’ve come in laying down the burden of race.”
The son of sharecroppers, Lewis grew up on a family farm outside Troy, Ala., and attended segregated public schools. During the civil rights movement, he organized sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters in Nashville, Tenn.
In 1963, he addressed the historic March on Washington — two years before he and hundreds of others marched on “Bloody Sunday.”
On March 7, 1965, Lewis and others were beaten by state troopers as they began to march to Montgomery.
The march is credited with helping build momentum for passage that year of the landmark Voting Rights Act, which opened polling places to millions of blacks and ended all-white governments in the South.
“We broke down those signs that said, ‘White Waiting,’ ‘Colored Waiting,’ ‘White Men,’ ‘Colored Men,’ ‘White Women,’ ‘Colored Women.’ We got a Voting Rights Act passed 50 years ago, a Civil Rights Act passed. But, we still have a distance to go,” said Lewis.
“In many communities today, the question of race is still very real. You can feel it. You can almost taste it. But, you cannot deny the fact that America is a different America. Even in the heart of the Deep South, those signs are gone. And they will not return. People registered. And they are voting.”
Lewis was first elected to Congress in 1986. He was re-elected to a 15th term in November.