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For The First Time In 56 Years, A 'Bloody Sunday' Without John Lewis

Mar 5, 2021
Originally published on March 7, 2021 8:52 am

This weekend marks 56 years since civil rights marchers were attacked by Alabama state troopers on a day now known as "Bloody Sunday." The annual commemoration will be different this year — there's a pandemic, a new president and perhaps most notably, one missing voice.

On March, 7 1965, the late John Lewis and other civil rights leaders led a march from Selma to Montgomery to demonstrate for voting rights. While crossing onto the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the peaceful demonstrators, including Lewis, were brutally beaten by police.

It was just one episode across a decades-long fight for racial justice that began in a violent Jim Crow-era South in which Lewis risked his life championing freedom.

The civil rights icon and congressman — who, on that Bloody Sunday, had his skull cracked by troopers — died at age 80 in July after suffering from advanced-stage pancreatic cancer.

This weekend's events in Selma will be largely virtual due to COVID-19 restrictions, but will include an online re-enactment of the bridge-crossing. Hank Sanders, a former longtime Alabama state senator, has organized a drive-in breakfast for Sunday that will feature a lineup of speakers, including President Biden.

Hank Sanders, a longtime former Alabama state senator and voting rights advocate, will participate in honoring the late civil rights leader John Lewis at events marking the 56th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday."
Dave Martin / AP

This year's remembrance is devoted to honoring Lewis, along with other revolutionary leaders of that era who died last year — including the Rev. Joseph Lowery, a "dean" of the civil rights movement; the minister C.T. Vivian; and civil rights attorney Bruce Boynton.

"We are going to miss [John Lewis] because he had become a symbol for the voting rights movement, but he was one of many," said Sanders, a board member of the Selma-to-Montgomery March Foundation.

Sanders, who was a college student at the time, remembers another reason the activists gathered to march that day.

The month before, a white state trooper shot and killed Jimmie Lee Jackson, a young voting rights activist, in Marion, Ala. His murder sparked protesters to organize the Selma-to-Alabama marches.

Now, over five decades later, the country is bracing for the possibility of a new wave of civil unrest as the trial nears for the former Minneapolis police officer charged with killing George Floyd. The officer, who was seen on video kneeling on the neck of Floyd, a Black man, for several minutes last summer, will stand trial beginning the day after Bloody Sunday.

That landmark civil rights march in 1965 led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act later that same year.

But, Sanders said, the work of civil rights activists is not done.

"One of the realities that I've had to face is that every time that it appears that Black people in the United States make a little advancement or a little progress, there's a powerful backlash," he said.

Many activists who were alive to witness the passing of the Voting Rights Act also lived to see it gutted. Just this year, 33 states have taken action on over 160 proposals that restrict voter access, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

Sanders, who met the protesters in Montgomery on the last day of the march, remembered hearing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lead the crowd in an urgent call for their civil rights.

"When Dr. King said 'How long?' and we would all shout back 'Not long!' I really thought that it wasn't gonna be long," Sanders said. "And so, here it is, 50 years later and we're still protecting, fighting, trying to protect what's left of the Voting Rights Act and then try to advance it."

Sanders remains hopeful that future generations will be able to carry on the torch, utilizing the same lessons he learned a half century ago.

"Creativity was employed and we were able to take marching feet and singing song and praying prayer and still be able to ride to victory," he said. "So we're gonna have to have that same creativity as we continue to fight this backlash of white supremacy — this backlash of voter suppression."

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The commemoration of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Ala., will be different this year. The pandemic means there won't be marching crowds this weekend. The church service will be virtual.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And notably, a voice will be missing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN LEWIS: We're marching today to dramatize to the nation, dramatize to the world, the hundreds and thousands of Negro citizens of Alabama, but particularly here in the Black Belt area, denied the right to vote.

KELLY: That is the late John Lewis speaking on that day in 1965, when demonstrators, including Lewis, were brutally beaten by police while marching from Selma to Montgomery. It became a turning point in the civil rights movement that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

HANK SANDERS: We are going to miss him because he was a - he had become a symbol for the voting rights movement, but he was one of many.

SHAPIRO: Former State Sen. Hank Sanders helped organize this year's remembrance, which will honor Congressman John Lewis, along with other civil rights giants who died in 2020. Sanders says their work is not yet done.

SANDERS: Every time that it appears that Black people in the United States make a little advancement, a little progress, there is a powerful backlash.

KELLY: Many who fought to get the Voting Rights Act into law also lived to see it gutted by the Supreme Court. Already this year, more than 160 state-level bills seek to limit access to mail-in ballots, to tighten voter ID laws or introduce other restrictions, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

SANDERS: When Dr. King said, how long, and we would all shout back, not long, I really thought that it wasn't going to be long. And so here it is 50 years later, and we still protecting what's left of the Voting Rights Act and then try to advance it.

SHAPIRO: That was former Sen. Sanders again. One more echo of history - like the racial justice protests of the past year, it was the death of a Black man at the hands of police that sparked the march to Montgomery.

SANDERS: Folks on that Bloody Sunday march was marching because Jimmie Lee Jackson had been shot in cold blood by Alabama state troopers.

SHAPIRO: On Monday, 56 years and a day after Bloody Sunday, jury selection begins in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged with the murder of George Floyd.

(SOUNDBITE OF TEEN DAZE'S "ANEW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.