(Special to The Root) — Charlayne Hunter-Gault delivered the following remarks on April 4, 2013, at the Allen Prize Symposium at Georgia Tech University in Atlanta, where Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) received the Ivan Allen Jr. Prize for Social Courage.
The first time I heard Barack Obama say that he stood on the shoulders of giants, it was in Selma, Ala., as he was campaigning in 2008. And then, as always, one of the faces that appeared in my mind's eye was that of John Lewis. On that horrifying day in 1965, there was one of the biggest demonstrations in the history of the civil rights movement.
Selma was the home of the Ku Klux Klan, which helped preserve with fear and brutality and, yes, murder the whites-only privileges they enjoyed. Black people had no rights, no voice in the affairs of the town, except for a brief period during Reconstruction. The whites who ran things kept them confined to work in their cotton fields, in their kitchens and in their gardens.
To speak up about just about anything could mean losing one of those limiting jobs or, worse, to be hanged from a tree. As a result, they didn't challenge their conditions, although they were not happy with them. As the author and attorney Charles W. Chesnutt once wrote: "The first struggle would be against black fear, not white resistance."
And as my good friend Andrew Young, and fellow speaker today, also recalled, "Residents of Selma were like the dog who gets kicked all the time but just moves out of the way whenever someone comes along."
But he also went on to say: "By 1965 the dog had been kicked too many times. Selma had been bruised and abused long enough."
John Lewis was one of the reasons the people of Selma were able to confront their fear and rise up and demand their full rights as citizens.
Earlier, in 1963, John and his fellow members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the brash young civil rights organization known as the "shock troops" of the movement … took their first voter-registration campaign to Selma. Only 2 percent of blacks in the entire state of Alabama were registered, not least because of the ridiculous obstacles the white officials placed in their path.
In Mississippi, for example, black would-be voters were required to take literacy tests, recite from memory portions of the state constitution and interpret them, often for white registrars who themselves could not read or write. One SNCC worker, who tried to get blacks registered in Selma, was ambushed and beaten so badly that he was near death.
This horrible viciousness was not new to John Lewis. And so in 1961, when he organized the first Freedom Rides from Washington, D.C., he so well knew what perils possibly lay ahead that he and the others who joined them did an amazing thing for some so young. As John was later to recall, "We were prepared to die. Some of us signed letters and wills. We didn't know if we would return."
And sure enough, the group encountered their first violence in Rock Hill, S.C., when a group of young white toughs at the bus station's pinball machines noticed John as he stepped off the bus. As I wrote with tears in my eyes as I prepared my latest book on the civil rights movement:
… when John stepped off the Greyhound bus and attempted to enter through the white entrance, one of the whites directed him to the colored entrance. Lewis responded: "I have a right to go in here on grounds of the Supreme Court decision in the Boynton case." One of the white youths spat out a profanity, and when Lewis ignored it and stared in through the door, a young white man punched him in the mouth, thus giving Lewis the dubious distinction of taking the first blow to a Freedom Rider.
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.
The Selma-to-Montgomery March was, as I wrote, "the crowning achievement of the Civil Rights Movement." And within a few months, the reverberations from "Bloody Sunday" would lead to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which opened the door to the long corridor that led Barack Obama to the White House in 2009, and which President Obama acknowledged in one of his first acts as president when he presented Congressman John Lewis with a commemorative photograph, gratefully inscribed, "Because of you, John."
This past year, I was fortunate to have watched a wonderful episode of Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s Finding Your Roots, in which he traced the DNA history of John Lewis back to his great-grandfather, who was freed from slavery just after the Emancipation Proclamation. I was mesmerized by the journey, not least because it partially explained how John Lewis managed to stand up, even when beaten into the ground.
His great-grandfather's first two acts as a free man were to marry the woman he loved, which slaves couldn't do, and then go and register to vote. I cried as John cried upon hearing this revelation that he had picked up the torch his great-grandfather lit long before he was born. The DNA with a moral compass is surely what helps explain how this great-great-grandson came to succeed in getting, for the black people of the South, the precious tool only briefly enjoyed by his great-great-grandfather and thousands like him.
If chickens could talk — at least so we humans could understand them — they would probably have been able to speak glowingly of that voice — albeit at the time a very young voice of a young man whose very young soul was on fire for freedom, the fire that propelled him forward from that chicken coop to the mountaintop Dr. King spoke of.
And I just know that as I stand today in grateful admiration and appreciation, the countless companions we have lost along the way are smiling down on John and are happy that while he confronted death, he lived to continue the still-elusive fight for freedom, justice and equality for all. And I am honored beyond the words I've spoken today to be here to add my voice on behalf of those who are here and those who are not here to say, as the master who inspired him from an early age would say, "Well done, my good and faithful servant. Well done."
Charlayne Hunter-Gault, a regular contributor to The Root, is the author of To the Mountaintop: My Journey Through the Civil Rights Movement, published by Roaring Brook Press and the New York Times Co.
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