Honoring Martin King, John Lewis and 1965

Heather Gray & John Lewis, Selma 1985

The 2017 King Holiday marks the 31st year of the event. When it was first celebrated on January 20, 1986, I was directing the Non-Violent Social Change Program for Mrs. King at the “King Center for Non-Violent Social Change” in Atlanta. I had attended meetings in the mid-1980s that Mrs. King held at the Center with Water Fauntroy  (District of Columbia House of Representative member), John Lewis and others as they reported and strategized on what was happening in Congress regarding the establishment of the King Holiday. 

John Lewis in the 1980s served on the Atlanta City Council.  Later, in 1986, Lewis ran successfully for the House of Representatives to represent Georgia’s 5th Congressional District. He has been re-elected 14 times and only once going under 70% of the vote which was 69% over Dale Dixon in 1994 (Wikipedia).  

While on the Atlanta City Council, however, John Lewis was a consistent visitor at the King Center to attend meetings with Mrs. King and also to help me with the teaching of the Non-Violent program. He helped educate the youth about the civil rights movement and to also visit some of the critical sites, such as Selma and Montgomery, Alabama. 

The March 7, 1965 Selma, Alabama action to demand voting rights was where Lewis almost lost his life. He was beaten unconscious by the Alabama State Patrol. This occurred as John and others began to walk across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge to the renowned Alabama Highway 80 on their trek to Montgomery and the headquarters of Alabama’s Governor George Wallace. It was to demand their constitutional rights and the registration of Black voters in Alabama. Here’s an apt description of it all:

Lewis became nationally known during his prominent role in the Selma to Montgomery marches when, on March 7, 1965 – a day that would become known as “Bloody Sunday” – Lewis and fellow activist Hosea Williams led over 600 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. At the end of the bridge, they were met by Alabama State Troopers who ordered them to disperse. When the marchers stopped to pray, the police discharged tear gas and mounted troopers charged the demonstrators, beating them with night sticks. Lewis’s skull was fractured, but he escaped across the bridge to Brown Chapel, the movement’s headquarter church in Selma. Before Lewis could be taken to the hospital, he appeared before the television cameras calling on President Johnson to intervene in Alabama. Lewis bears scars from the incident on his head that are still visible today (Wikipedia).

John told me, as we stood at the top of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1985, that all he could observe on the other side of the bridge, when he and others began the march in 1965, was a “sea of blue” – the uniforms of the Alabama State Patrol. 

In response to this disastrous violence in Selma, on March 21, 1965 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led what swelled to some 25,000 marchers in a federally protected “Selma-to-Montgomery March”. This then soon generated the passage of the “Voting Rights Act” on August 6, 1965 (Stanford).

At the end of the March 21 “federally protected march” in 1965, however, Alabama resumed its violent, discriminatory reputation: 

Afterward a delegation of march leaders attempted to deliver a petition to Governor Wallace, but were rebuffed. That night, while ferrying Selma demonstrators back home from Montgomery, Viola Liuzzo, a housewife from Michigan who had come to Alabama to volunteer, was shot and killed by four members of the Ku Klux Klan. Doar later prosecuted three Klansmen conspiring to violate her civil rights (Stanford).

Years later, in the late 1990s, I drove the Reverend Joseph Lowery  (who was head of SCLC at the time) down Highway 80 for a meeting in Selma. Dr. King had asked him to lead the Selma-to-Montgomery March in 1965.  As we drove on the legendary highway, Lowery stated, profoundly, “this is hallowed ground!” Indeed!

Later in 1965, on December 10, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave one of his renowned speeches at the Human Rights Day at Hunter College in New York City. In it he compares the civil rights struggles in the United States and the fight for freedom in South Africa.

Much of what he stated is still, unfortunately, relevant today given especially the present political situation in the United States. As King asks below,  who are the brutes and savages in Africa?  They are not black, he says, but white Europeans. Further, he notes, “To assert white supremacy, to invoke white economic and military power, to maintain the status quo is to foster the danger of international race war.” King also honors whites who join in the struggle for justice, of which he says there are many. As he wisely states at the end:

“Negro and white have been separated for centuries by evil men and evil myths. But they have found each other. The powerful unity of Negro with Negro and white with Negro is stronger than the most potent and entrenched racism. The whole human race will benefit when it ends the abomination that has diminished the stature of man for too long. This is the task to which we are called by the suffering in South Africa, and our response should be swift and unstinting. Out of this struggle will come the glorious reality of the family of man.”


Heather Gray 

Justice Initiative International

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