He changed my life: A remembrance of John Lewis

By Harold C. Ford

“When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something.  To do something.”

— John Lewis, December 2019

It was Sunday, March 7, 1965.  I was an 18-year-old freshman student at Flint Community Junior College (FCJC).  I still lived at my parents’ home with four younger siblings.

The images on the family’s black and white television had riveted my attention.  Some 600 peaceful marchers came to a halt after crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. They were confronted by an imposing array of state troopers sent by Alabama’s segregationist governor, George C. Wallace.  The troopers were augmented by a ragtag collection of local law enforcers, many of whom had just been deputized by Selma’s infamous racist sheriff, Jim Clark.

The marchers—all black, unarmed—knelt.  The troopers and lawmen—all white, many on horseback, equipped with firearms, clubs, and gasmasks—lobbed cannisters of tear gas into the line of marchers and charged.  Men, women, and children were beaten indiscriminately.

In all, 17 were hospitalized and 50 treated for lesser injuries.  Lynda Blackmon Lowery, age 14, needed seven stitches for a cut above her right eye and 28 stitches on the back of her head.  The shameful episode became known to the nation as “Bloody Sunday.”

The most visible victim in those televised images was a small black man in a tan trench coat at the front of the march. That man was 25-year-old John Robert Lewis.

“Conscience of the Congress”:

John Lewis died last Friday from pancreatic cancer.  He was 80.

Lewis was youngest of the “Big Six” civil rights leaders that organized the 1963 March on Washington that also included A. Phillip Randolph, Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins, James Farmer, and Martin Luther King.  Lewis survived them all.

Lewis was everywhere during the Civil Rights Movement.  He participated in lunch counter sit-ins, freedom (bus) rides, and voting rights marches.  He was beaten, arrested, and jailed dozens of times.

His crusade for social justice eventually led him to Congress in 1986 where he served 17 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.  In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded him the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.  Obama dubbed him the “Conscience of the United States Congress.”

Bloody Sunday:

Bloody Sunday in Alabama was a wakeup call for me, a seminal moment in my life.  Suddenly the elevated schoolhouse lessons about American democracy—the “land of the free, home of the brave”—went crashing to the floor of my nation’s unfulfilled promises.

Images of the brutal beating suffered by Lewis and others stretched 850 miles from Selma to suburban Flint, rupturing forever the naiveté of this privileged white male.  Lewis—the embodiment of Jesus, Thoreau, Gandhi, and King—summoned me from my sofa into a lifetime of social justice activism.

Within days, I joined eight other FCJC and UM-Flint students on a journey to the Selma-to-Montgomery Voting Rights March that grew out of the Bloody Sunday beatings.  The 50-mile march ended in front of the Alabama statehouse in Montgomery where a multiracial throng of some 30,000 demanded the right to vote for all.

In 1965, blacks made up approximately half the voting population of Dallas County within which Selma was located.  But just 156 of Selma’s 15,000 black citizens of voting age were registered to vote.

Before its conclusion, the Selma campaign was bloodied further by three deaths.  Black activist Jimmie Lee Jackson was beaten and shot by a white police officer; his death ignited the march.  Northern white activists—Detroiter Viola Liuzzo and Unitarian Universalist minister James Reeb—were murdered by southern white racists.

In the eighth decade of my life, that week-long journey remains my most frightening experience ever.  That fear, however, was tempered quickly by the emerging realization that black citizens in the deep South experienced that fear every day of their lives.

Voting Rights Act:

Only five months after Bloody Sunday, on Aug. 6, 1965, the Voting Rights Act (VRA) was signed into law.  The act may well be the most effective civil rights legislation ever enacted in our country.

By the summer following the bill’s passage, 9,000 black citizens in Dallas County had registered to vote.  Black voter registration in the entire U.S. soon went up by 61% to more than 5 million.

In 1965, there were only 100 black elected officials in the entire continental U.S.  By 1989 there were more than 7,200: 24 U.S. Representatives (including John Lewis); one state governor; 101 state senators; 315 state representatives; nine state supreme court judges; 760 law enforcement officials; 299 city mayors; and thousands of others.

Barack Obama’s ascension to the presidency in 2008 and 2012 signaled the increasing power of the nation’s black electorate.  On his Inauguration Day in 2009, Obama sent a signed message to Lewis that read: “Because of you, John.”

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court weakened the provisions of the Voting Rights Act in its Shelby County v. Holder decision.  The ruling eliminated provisions that were believed to have substantially increased voting turnout among minorities.

A brush with greatness:

I’m certain that John Lewis was at the front of marchers as they arrived in Montgomery on Mar. 25, 1965.  I didn’t notice, as my eyes were fixated on Dr. King as he waved to those of us on the sidewalks waiting to take our places in the long column of marchers that followed.

Thirty-seven years later, in 2002, while visiting the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA, I had the opportunity to meet John Lewis, shake his hand, and introduce myself.  It went something like:

“Hello, I’m Harold Ford from Flint, Michigan.  I participated in the Selma-to-Montgomery March in 1965.”

Lewis was incredibly gracious and warm as he informed me that I had become the second Harold Ford he knew.   His friend and colleague, Harold E. Ford, represented Tennessee in the U.S. House.

As I walked away from that brief conversation, I knew that I’d just brushed up against greatness.

I’ve fancied myself a social justice warrior all my adult years, but I’ve never been beaten, arrested, or jailed as was John Lewis dozens of times.  The beating of this little black man at the Edmund Pettus Bridge cast a giant shadow over this nation’s history, and changed my life forever.  He absorbed those blows for me, and for you.

Harold C. Ford (Photo by Jan Worth-Nelson)

In light of voter suppression and interference in our elections, our nation would do well to honor the legacy of John Lewis by restoring and strengthening the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Banner image reproduced courtesy of deadline.com.

EVM Education Beat reporter and reviewer Harold C. Ford can be reached at hcford1185@gmail.com.  He is retired from 43 years as an educator in the Beecher Community School District and for three years as administrator of the Beecher Scholarship Incentive Program (BSIP).

Author: East Village Magazine

A Non-profit, Community News Magazine Since 1976

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