Turning Point: Selma – Selma, Alabama

Turning Point: Selma – Selma, Alabama – Brief Article

Wayne Greenhaw

He was smaller than the others Less than 5-feet-10, John Lewis was balding even at the age of 20, a wide-eyed Alabama farm youth fresh from the classrooms of the Institute of Nonviolent Resistance to Segregation. He had learned from James Lawson, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) advisor in Nashville, where John Lewis was a student after his home-town school of Troy State College had turned him away because of his color. He had met with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ralph Abernathy He had listened to the nonviolent preachings of Myles Horton at the Highlander Folk School. Although he burned with a passion to right all wrongs, believing segregation to be among the worst of those wrongs, he became convinced that “I couldn’t beat love into my strongest enemy.”

Remembering, he said those words with a sardonic smile. Perhaps because of his own small size, he had stooped low to help the tiniest creatures on his family’s farm: chicks that had recently cracked from eggshells, lifting them and saying prayers over them. Later, he told of his reverence toward those little animals, his voice shaking as he spoke.

While a student at American Baptist Theological Seminary, John Lewis walked with a group of fellow students into downtown Nashville where at five-and-ten-cents stores “we took our seats in very orderly, peaceful fashion” at the lunch counters, prepared to sit all day long and even be arrested, if that was what it took.

For the young man who believed with great devotion every word and phrase he studied in the Holy Bible, all of his early reading and listening and even the long days of sitting at the five-and-dime counters led up to Freedom Day in Selma, AL, on October 8, 1963. “I believe [it] was a turning point in the civil rights movement,” he later stated.

It was in Selma that Lewis and others would test the idea of one man, one vote, following the big March on Washington and in the tense aftermath of the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that killed four little black girls. Selma, with a black majority population of which only 2.1 percent were registered to vote, became a nonviolent battleground.

“I will never forget that day,” Lewis said. With hundreds of other blacks standing around the Dallas County courthouse, Lewis faced Sheriff Jim Clark and armed deputies who demanded the crowd disperse and go home. They silently refused.

The officers waded into them with billyclubs swinging. Lewis caught a blow across the side of his head before joining the arrested. In being carried away with blood streaming down his face, he called for those on the outside to continue the drive to register blacks to vote.

The city, led by Mayor Joe Smitherman, reacted to make it unlawful for more than three people to walk on a public sidewalk or stand together without written permission from the sheriff’s office.

By March of 1965, after having been arrested on other occasions in Selma, John Lewis became one of a handful of SNCC leaders who joined Dr. King in the march from Selma to Montgomery to protest for voting rights.

On the south side of Edmund Pettus Bridge that spanned the Alabama River on U.S. 80 heading to Montgomery, marchers were met by state troopers and mounted deputies who gassed the group and beat them with nightsticks and bullwhips and cattle prods.

That Sunday evening the Nation watched as the lawmen beat and people screamed, and within days the demonstrators were given safe passage by Federal court order, and within weeks Congress passed the Voting Rights Act.

Thirty years later U.S. Representative John Lewis held the hand of Mayor Joe Smitherman as they stepped together across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in a quiet but powerful show of unity.

As a Montgomery journalist, Wayne Greenhaw covered the civil rights movement in Alabama. Now Associate Publisher of Black Belt Publishing Co., Greenhaw is also the author of 14 books, the latest being “ALABAMA: History and Photo Album” and “MONTGOMERY: The Biography of a City.”

COPYRIGHT 1997 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group