Georgia Rep. John Lewis had just turned 20 the first time he was arrested and even though he was so young, he wasn’t afraid. The civil rights movement’s leaders worked hard to prepare its young soldiers for whatever they would encounter in the racist South during their fight for equal rights for people of color.
“We studied the philosophy and the discipline of nonviolence,” Lewis told BET.com, which included Black and white activists role-playing different scenarios in assimilated settings to “pretend that someone is harassing or spitting on you or pouring hot water, hot coffee, hot chocolate on you and pulling you off of the lunch counter, but you prepare. You’re ready for it, but you never know until the real thing takes place.”
Lewis had been preparing for years. The Alabama native met Rosa Parks at age 17, Martin Luther King when he was 18, the year he started attending rallies and mass meetings. At 19 he participated in his first sit-in. Lewis, who has served in Congress since 1987, served as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and has become an iconic symbol of the struggle to end segregation and achieve equal rights for people of color.
For Lewis, March 7, 1965, or Bloody Sunday as it is now remembered, was more real than he’d ever anticipated. On that day, 600 civil rights protesters marching from Selma to Montgomery were stopped at the Edmund Pettus Bridge where state and local policemen attacked them with billy clubs and tear gas, driving them back to the church where they’d begun their journey. And perhaps for the first time, Lewis felt true fear, even though he’d already been beaten in Rock Hill, South Carolina, by a group of young white men and then again a few weeks later by an angry mob in Montgomery, Alabama.
“Nothing compared to the violence in Selma because it was state-sanctioned violence. It was not like a traditional mob that we witnessed in 1961. You had state police along with sheriffs and deputies beating and tear-gassing us and running horses over us,” he recalled.
Lewis says he remembers being beaten and knocked down, and as he lost his footing, he saw death.
“I thought I was going to die and just sort of had a session with myself and said this is it. I’m going to die on this bridge. I thought it was my last protest,” Lewis said.
Luckily for the African-American community, it was not.
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(Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
(Photo: Birmingham News/Landov)