An ailing U.S. Congressman John Lewis spoke Sunday at the commemoration of the crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where he and other marchers were savagely beaten by police 55 years earlier.
Lewis, who is suffering from stage 4 pancreatic cancer, was the surprise speaker at the remembrance, arriving by car. He got out of the car and spoke to the assembled crowd.
Lewis told them of the fear he felt as police violently rained down nightsticks on the marchers’ heads and bodies. Police also threw tear gas at the marchers to beat them back.
“I thought I was going to die on this bridge, but somehow and some way, God almighty helped me here,” said Lewis, who was president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, an influential civil rights organization. He participated in the march as an individual, not as a member of SNCC, which did not support the demonstration.
The brutal beatings of marchers by police as they attempted to cross Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965, on this date is called “Bloody Sunday.” The march was televised, horrifying viewers nationwide.
Roughly 600 unarmed marchers were violently driven back by Alabama State Troopers, Dallas County Sheriff’s deputies. A horse-mounted posse chased the marchers after they crossed the bridge.
Police turned back the marchers twice, but on the third attempt, the Alabama National Guard, under federal control of President Lyndon Johnson, protected the marchers on Sunday, March 21. They continued to march, reaching Montgomery on Thursday, March 25.
News coverage of the march and the determination of the marchers pushed Congress to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act that was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on August 6, 1965.
The marchers walked across the bridge to the state capital of Montgomery to protest the police shooting death of civil rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson, 26.
Jackson was shot in the stomach on February 18, 1965, by Alabama State Trooper James Fowler while the troopers were breaking up a peaceful protest in Marion, Perry County.
Jackson was then taken the 50 miles to Selma’s Good Samaritan Hospital for treatment. He died eight days later, according to the Encyclopedia of Alabama.