Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., remembers being hit on the head with a nightstick by an Alabama state trooper during what became known as “Bloody Sunday,” a key moment in the civil rights movement.
He recalls stuffing his backpack with two books, a toothbrush and toothpaste, and some fruit, just in case he ended up arrested. He remembers getting a concussion from the trooper’s blow and being carried back to a Selma, Alabama church where Martin Luther King Jr. told him everything was all right. Through it all, he remembers having lost his sense of fear.
Lewis relived key moments of the civil rights movement during his visit for the Fresno Economic Opportunity Commission’s 50th anniversary on Wednesday.
As a student at Fisk University, Lewis helped to form and later led the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from 1963 to 1966. He spoke at King’s 1963 March on Washington. In 1965, he was one of 600 peaceful marchers attacked while trying to cross a bridge from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to demonstrate the need for voting rights.
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Lewis later directed the Voter Education Project and helped add nearly 4 million minorities to the voter rolls. He was elected to Congress in 1986 and remains the only living member of the “Big Six” leaders of the civil rights movement.
Lewis walked into Family Community Church in north Fresno to a standing ovation. The invitation-only prayer luncheon, hosted by the West Fresno Faith Based Organization, was attended by around 300 clergy.
During a media conference afterward, Lewis said the civil rights movement has become more inclusive since he became involved.
“A lot of people think the civil rights movement was just about African-Americans,” he said. “It’s about all of us – people put down because of their race, their color, their origin, their faith, their sexual orientation. We cannot continue to survive as a free society until we include everybody.”
Lewis said young people should study the history of the civil rights movement and adhere to nonviolence. He urged them to register to vote – a right he called precious, almost sacred.
He said the U.S. should set undocumented immigrants on a path to citizenship and ensure everyone gets to vote. He addressed the controversy surrounding Donald Trump’s opposition to birthright citizenship, calling the idea crazy and dumb.
“If you’re born here, you’re a citizen,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any such thing as a legal human being.”
The EOC hosted a screening of the movie “Selma” at Warnors Theater. Afterward, Lewis walked into the theater to another standing ovation and cheers, including those of 600 Fresno Unified School District students.
Fresno City Council member Oliver Baines then moderated a civil rights discussion between Lewis and Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno.
Lewis has cried each of the six times he’s watched “Selma.” He said the film captured the essence of the movement, including the drama of people jailed, beaten, tear-gassed and killed while fighting for their rights.
“I thought I saw death,” he said. “I thought I was going to die.”
Costa remembers “Bloody Sunday” too, but as a 12-year-old watching it unfold on television. That, he said, was the moment he recognized the existence of racial inequality.
“I saw it, and it was as horrific as you saw it in the movie,” he told the students. “Some of my innocence was lost.”
Much of the conversation centered on the film. Halfway through, some students appeared asleep. Stephanie Camey, 26, a civil rights organizer affiliated with Black Lives Matter, said Lewis didn’t do enough to relate his experience to issues affecting marginalized communities now.
She wished Costa would have addressed local civil rights issues, including police brutality and the new partnership between Fresno County Sheriff’s Office and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“I’m tired of just symbolic stuff,” she said. “I want people to get their hands dirty.”