John took many more blows there and elsewhere in the South, so that when he got to Selma, he also may have had the dubious distinction of having taken more blows to his head and body than any other civil rights activist. Sometimes when I hear him so eloquently defending the ongoing challenges to full equality on the floor of the House, on radio or TV, I marvel that he can speak or think at all, let alone so brilliantly and persuasively.
But clearly blows didn’t affect or deter the young man who started out to become a preacher at an early age and would practice his sermons in the backyard of his Alabama home, his audience the chickens being raised in the backyard.
And Selma was no exception. Again, as I wrote in To the Mountaintop:
SNCC was not in favor of the march, but SNCC’s John Lewis, once again, put his well-battered body on the line. On that day, March 7, Lewis was in the lead, along with SCLC’s Hosea Williams, as a throng of some 400 mostly black people, including at least one 8 year old girl, SheyAnn Webb, headed out from the Brown Chapel AME Church toward Selma’s one bridge.
When the marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, waiting for them on the other side was an untold number of Alabama state troopers, some on horseback. The troopers gave a warning that the march was unlawful and in a flash waded into the demonstrators, beating them with billy clubs and bullwhips. They also set off tear gas and trampled some demonstrators with the horses … John Lewis and an older Selma resident, Amelia Boynton, who was responsible for SNCC being in Selma, were knocked unconscious.
The atrocities led to that day that would live in history as “Bloody Sunday.”
There would be more blood spilled, more blows to the battered head of John Lewis. When I was researching To the Mountaintop, I was still shocked reliving those perilous times. Even though I was matriculating at an unfriendly university in Athens as only one of two black students, and on weekends went home to help an upstart young newspaper, the Atlanta Inquirer, cover the activities of the movement — especially in Atlanta — and always marveled at what my peers were able to confront and endure on the frontlines of the battle, I often found myself wondering how John Lewis survived, clearly with his brains intact, despite the efforts to make them fly out of his head!
It was people like John Lewis who kept me keeping on at the University of Georgia, especially when I walked alone across the campus and was subjected to jeers and ugly name-calling. Among those times was when the Freedom Riders were in the news, and they thought they were hurting me when they yelled at me and called me “Freedom Rider.” Those students had no idea they were conferring on me a badge of honor. And they probably wondered why I was smiling.