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Remembering the courage and faith of John Lewis, an American hero

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks are the best known leaders of the civil rights movement. John Lewis should be a household name as well.

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In this Nov. 18, 2016, file photo, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., poses for a photograph under a quote of his that is displayed in the Civil Rights Room in the Nashville Public Library in Nashville, Tenn

AP

John Lewis is an American hero. With his passing on Friday, we have an opportunity to revisit important moments in American history and remember the perseverance and faith of the civil rights marchers of the 1960s. 

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks are the best known leaders of the civil rights movement. John Lewis should be a household name as well. He organized sit-ins in Nashville, standing up for the right to be treated with equal dignity and respect. He was among the brave Freedom Riders who suffered violent beatings to desegregate interstate bus travel. He was a principal organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, during which King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. But most of all, John Lewis will be remembered for what he did in Selma, Alabama, on the day known to history as “Bloody Sunday.” 

On Sunday, March 7, 1965, Lewis and Hosea Williams led more than 500 civil rights marchers from the Brown A.M.E. Church down the streets of Selma with the plan of marching approximately 40 miles to Montgomery, the Alabama capital. For weeks, marchers had demonstrated in Selma and in nearby communities against the practice of voter suppression. While blacks were theoretically allowed to vote, they were routinely harassed and prevented from registering by the malicious use of intimidation, onerous testing and refusals of service. Tensions escalated after Alabama state troopers appeared to have turned off street lights and attacked marchers in the nearby town of Marion, leaving one dead and prompting calls for a march on Montgomery to demand the governor’s protection. 

As Lewis and Williams crested the hill of the Edmund Pettus Bridge (named for a local Klan leader), they could see dozens of Alabama state troopers and deputized posse men waiting below with billy clubs, bullwhips, horses and tear gas. A group of white onlookers even gathered in festive spirits to watch the ensuing beating. When the column of men, women and children — dressed in their Sunday best after church services — reached the bottom of the hill, they were told to disperse. 

“We couldn’t go forward. We couldn’t go back. There was only one option that I could see,” Lewis recounts. “We should kneel and pray,” he said to Williams. 

There was no time. In a frightful scene, the assembled troopers and deputies rushed and drove the marchers for more than a mile over the bridge, through Selma’s streets, back to their church and surrounding homes. Trampled by horses, choked by tear gas and bloodied by clubs, the onslaught was horrifying. Lewis suffered a fractured skull. Dozens of injured marchers gathered in the Brown A.M.E. Church, nursing their wounds and seeking peace after the violent suppression of their rights of assembly and speech. As someone started singing the protest song, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” a chorus of beleaguered but unbent marchers, here one and there one, joined together, lifting their spirits in hope for a better tomorrow. 

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In this March 7, 1965, file photo, a state trooper swings a billy club at John Lewis, right foreground, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, to break up a civil rights voting march in Selma, Ala. Lewis sustained a fractured skull.

AP

The marchers didn’t know it at the time, but news of “Bloody Sunday” was spreading throughout the country, shocking American families watching television at home that evening. President Lyndon B. Johnson would order National Guard troops to Alabama, and tens of thousands of marchers would reach Montgomery several weeks later, with Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his speech, “How Long? Not Long!” from the capitol steps.  

When President Johnson urged Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, he placed the events of Bloody Sunday into American history, enshrining their sacrifices among the great events of the American cause for freedom. “At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama.” 

After his pivotal role in securing voting rights in the South, Lewis would serve in Congress for almost four decades as a representative of Georgia in the U.S. House of Representatives. President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. 

One doesn’t have to agree with Rep. Lewis’ politics to recognize him as an American hero deserving of a special place in America’s history. When Lewis and the hundreds of marchers who stood atop the Edmund Pettus Bridge walked forward because they would not go back, they took their place among the many great American patriots whose examples of perseverance and faith have endowed generations to come with the blessings of freedom.

And as with other great moments in American history, the inspiring examples of the civil rights marchers can reveal to us the true source of the power to overcome. “Without prayer, without faith in the Almighty,” Lewis has said, “the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings. On many occasions, when we had been beaten, arrested, in jail, you had to call upon something, some force, some power much larger, much greater, and much more powerful. In my estimation, the civil rights movement was a religious phenomenon.”  

As we grapple with the challenges of our day, Lewis’ reminder of the sustaining power of faith and prayers is needed now, as much as ever. 

Michael Erickson is an attorney in Salt Lake City.