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Still on the March 40 Years after ‘Bloody Sunday’
By: Hazel Trice Edney
NNPA, Washington Correspondent
Originally posted 2/28/2005

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – John Lewis will never forget March 7, 1965, which would later become known as “Bloody Sunday. It was the first leg of the 54-mile Selma-to- Montgomery, Ala. march organized to help win passage of a national voting rights law. As chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Lewis was in front of the line as it formed at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, snaked through downtown Selma, and proceeded along U.S. 80 en route to the Alabama state capital.

“We were walking in an orderly, peaceful fashion with no one saying a word,” says Lewis. “It was like military discipline, more than 600 of us walking in twos. We came to the highest point on the [Edmund Pettus] bridge, crossing the Alabama River. Down below, we saw a sea of blue – Alabama state troopers. And we continued to walk. And we came within hand distance of the state troopers. And a man identified himself and said, ‘I am Major John Cloud of the Alabama State Troopers. This is an unlawful march. It will not be allowed to continue. I give you three minutes to disperse to your church.’”

In an interview with the NNPA News Service, Lewis, now a U.S. Congressman from Georgia, recalls what happened next.

“He left. And in a minute and a half, Major John Cloud said, ‘Troopers advance.’ And we saw these men putting on their gas masks and they came toward us, beating us with night sticks, bull whips, trampling us with horses, releasing the tear gas,” Lewis recounts. “I thought I was going to die. I thought I saw death. And I sort of said to myself, ‘I’m going to die here. This is my last protest.’ I just heard people hollering and crying. And 40 years later, I don’t recall how I made it back across that bridge, back to that little church.”

The graphic violence shown on national television news programs that night helped to win empathy and compassion for the protesters who retreated to the Brown Chapel, where they had begun the march.

Next Tuesday will mark the 40th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. While no one questions the effectiveness of the Selma-to-Montgomery March, some ask whether marching is a tactic that has outlived its usefulness.

“Dr. King said – and I think after all these years later, it’s still very relevant – he said, ‘There is nothing more powerful than the marching feet of a determined people,’” Lewis recalls.

Jesse Jackson Sr., who dropped out of the Chicago Theological Seminary to participate in the Selma-to-Montgomery March, agrees.

“Marching inspires people. It educates people,” ” says Jackson, president and CEO of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. “When the mass march comes, the camera comes. The to and fro takes place. The anxiety rises. Involvement happens. Mass action gets mass results. Usually, class action gets class results. Inaction gets no results.”

Jackson points to his hometown, Greenville, S.C., as an example of how protest still works. Greenville went for 19 years without recognizing the Martin Luther King holiday.

Jackson returned to his hometown to lead marches around the issue and help oust three council members opposed to honoring Dr. King. On February 1, the Greenville County Council voted 7-5 to begin observing the holiday next year.

“It’s litigation, demonstration, legislation and registration. It has always taken that combination,” Jackson explains.

Nat Irvin, founder of Future Focus 220, a futuristic think tank at Wake Forest University in neighboring North Carolina, thinks marching is quickly becoming a thing of the past.

“It will be difficult to find one issue that will cause masses of Black people to take to the streets,” Irvin predicts. “It would have to be really an egregious kind of thing directed at Black people intentionally to cause Black people to respond.”

Jackson is not convinced.

“It’s always been those who didn’t want to march and complained about marching, who didn’t understand marching,” he counters. “We’re debating a time-tested winner.”
John Lewis and protesters in Selma certainly emerged as winners.

Eventually, more than 3,000 protesters marched across the bridge en route to Montgomery. After the rally in Montgomery, violence struck again.

Viola Gregg Liuzzo, 39, the wife of a Detroit Teamster official and mother of four who had gone South to support civil rights, had been shot to death by a carload of Klansmen as she and a young Black SCLC worker were on their way to Montgomery to return some demonstrators to Selma.

Three of the four Klansmen were charged with murder; the fourth was an undercover FBI informant. The first trial ended in a hung jury and the second in an acquittal. The three were finally convicted of violating Liuzzo’s civil rights and each was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Moved by the continued violence against African-Americans and their supporters,Congress passed the Voting Rights Act that summer, and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed it into law on Aug. 6, 1965, removing many of the barriers to Black political empowerment. Black elected officials increased from 300 in 1965 to 9,040 in 2000, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

Civil rights issues of the 21st century, including the need for health care, quality education, anti-war policies, and continued protections for voting rights are more than enough reason to continue marching, says Lewis.

Lucy G. Barber, author of “Marching on Washington: The Forging of an American Political Tradition,” agrees that marching in America will increase - but for different reasons.

“It used to be something that’s done by more liberal groups. Now, groups of all different stripes use protest at the local level and at the national level to publicize their causes and draw attention to it,” says Barber, an archivist and historian for the California State Archives in Sacramento.

Recently, conservative groups have taken to the streets to highlight the issues of same-sex marriages and abortion.

Carl Mack, a former NAACP chapter president in Washington state and now executive director of the National Society of Black Engineers, says marching will remain an effective tool.

“You have to sustain it. And, of course, when you do something as dramatic as march on the freeway in rush hour traffic, it is impactful,” Mack says.

He was referring to his NAACP chapter’s response to the 2002 shooting death of a Black motorist by an off-duty White sheriff in Seattle. They marched on the freeway to call attention to the issue, then continued marches and protests over the next two years.

On the opposite coast, Damu Smith, chairman and founder of Black Voices for Peace, says his group will join anti-war marches at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, N.C. on March 19 and on Sept.10 in New York during a special session of the United Nations.

“We have not been able to compel a fundamental change in the policy, but we have put the Bush administration on the defensive about this war.” Smith says.

Shanta Driver, a convener of BAMN (By Any Means Necessary), the group that organized at least 10,000 student marchers outside the U. S. Supreme Court two years ago as justices heard arguments in two University of Michigan affirmative action cases.

She is organizing a march for April 1 in Ann Arbor to oppose Black conservative Ward Connerly’s ballot initiative to limit affirmative action in Michigan.

“We’re calling it ‘Operation King’s Dream’”, Driver says. “We believe his methods of fighting and his vision are one.”

Meanwhile, Lewis is preparing to commemorate Bloody Sunday by marching with a group back across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Sunday.

“More than anything you have to have a group of people, dedicated, committed with a made up mind that are prepared, literally, to do the extraordinary,” Lewis says. “They may not be beaten.

They may not get arrested. But, simple, organized marching will appeal to the conscious of the people.”

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