Marching through history

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 15, 2004

The congressional delegates braving the elements on the Edmund Pettus Bridge Saturday afternoon weren’t Republicans or Democrats. They weren’t congressional VIPs, glad-handing their way through a crowd looking for a few more votes.

They were students, learning at the feet of a trio of American heroes.

As some of the most powerful people in the world stopped to listen, Selma’s F.D. Reese spoke of the trials that he and others faced on that bridge nearly 40 years ago. Fellow civil rights marchers Robert Mants and U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) joined Reese in giving the assembled congressmen and their staff a guided tour of Selma’s most famous

landmark.

“It’s a very personal experience for most of us and we’re hearing it in the first-person voice of people that participated in the marches and the freedom riots,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said. “That’s a real privilege.

It’s something we’ll carry with us all our lives.”

Reese spoke briefly as the delegates gathered in the center of the bridge before the march.

Lewis and Selma Mayor James Perkins Jr. spoke as well, and a prayer was offered.

“I submit to you that Selma has made substantial contributions to people of color and indeed to all people of America,” Perkins said to the congressmen before urging them to aid the region. “We need your help.

No longer is double-digit employment acceptable.”

Then with Lewis in the lead and delegates and their staffs spread out behind, the group marched across the bridge.

Occasionally, Lewis stopped to explain what he felt, what he saw 40 years ago. Frist and the other congressmen, including Congressman Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), asked questions along the way.

“It’s a great feeling to come to Selma with the members of the United States Senate,” Lewis said. “It is my hope that they will all go back inspired to know this about our history, the progress we’ve made and the work we still must to make real the dream of the Voting Rights Act of ’65.”

At one point, Frist asked Lewis if the marchers knew what awaited them on the other side of the bridge.

“We had heard that there was a group of people waiting for us and we would probably be arrested,” Lewis said. “We were convinced we wouldn’t make it to Montgomery… we didn’t expect to be beaten. On the first day, I was prepared to go to jail and I think most of us were.”

“Bloody Sunday” took place on March 7, 1965 when state troopers took billy clubs and tear gas to marches on the bridge. Those beatings helped lead to the Voting Rights Act, enacted in 1965.

Lewis told the delegation the marchers didn’t have a permit so they were careful not to give the police any excuse to stop them.

“We were all on the sidewalk,

so the line was long,” Lewis said. “We didn’t want to stop traffic, we wanted to be orderly.”

The delegation of 10 U.S. Senators arrived in Selma as part of the three-day Senate Civil Rights Pilgrimage.

The trip explores the history of the civil rights movement in Alabama and Tennessee as part of Black History Month.

“The purpose of the pilgrimage is to honor those people who have struggled over the last 50 years and longer in this country in appropriate ways through prayer, church service

and the laying of wreaths,” Frist said.

“And to appreciate the past, so we as legislators can look to the future and accomplish and address what America deserves to be moved forward.”

The bridge wasn’t the only Selma landmark the group visited. The delegation also toured the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute.

“Congressman John Lewis is a familiar visitor to Selma, he comes every year,” the museum’s Sam Walker said. “He’ll be back in three weeks for the annual Jubilee.”

The delegation’s arrival in Selma is just another sign of the fast-approaching Jubilee Celebration in March.

“We’re expecting a second delegation of congressmen to come through during Jubilee itself,” Perkins said. “For us to be able to go through this process each year to commemorate to re-enact the march of Bloody Sunday, I think it’s a good thing for the community.

I have to take my hat off to the National Voting Rights Museum for their support and contribution to this effort.”

After the march, Perkins took the time to thank Reese, Mants and Lewis, personally, not only for the work they did in the civil rights movement, but their continuing service to their communities.

It was a sentiment echoed by Kemp.

“You not only liberated black, you liberated white,” he said to the trio.