“Fifty-five years ago, a few of our children attempted to march from Brown Chapel AME Church across this bridge. We were beaten, we were tear-gassed. I thought I was going to die on this bridge. But somehow and some way, God Almighty helped me here. We cannot give up now. We cannot give in. We must keep the faith. Keep our eyes on the prize. We must go out and vote like we never, ever voted before. Some people gave more than a little blood. Some gave their very lives. So I say to each and every one of you, especially you young people…Go out there. Speak up. Speak out. Get in the way. Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America.”
When Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) spoke out at this year’s anniversary commemoration of the “Bloody Sunday” Selma march, he moved many of us who hadjust wished a joyous 80th birthday to this warrior for justice. On March 7, 1965, the nation was shocked when John Lewis and Reverend Hosea Williams set out on a nonviolent march with a group of 600 people headed from Selma to Montgomery to demand their right to vote and were brutally attacked by lawless state and local law enforcement officials at Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. The televised images of “Bloody Sunday” and the savage beatings of the marchers—including John Lewis, whose skull was fractured—were a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement and in America’s struggle to become America.
Two weeks later I traveled from Mississippi to Alabama to join John Lewis, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and about 25,000 fellow citizens to march the 54 miles from Selma to the steps of the state’s capitol in Montgomery, safer thanks to Federal District Court Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr.’s order that we had a right to peaceful protest and with National Guard protection. And we were buoyed by President Johnson’s March 15th address calling on Congress to pass what became the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In that speech—“The American Promise”—President Johnson said: “This was the first nation in the history of the world to be founded with a purpose. The great phrases of that purpose still sound in every American heart, North and South: ‘All men are created equal’—‘government by consent of the governed’—‘give me liberty or give me death’. . . Those words are a promise to every citizen that he shall share in the dignity of man . . . To apply any other test—to deny a man his hopes because of his color or race, his religion or the place of his birth—is not only to do injustice, it is to deny America and to dishonor the dead who gave their lives for American freedom.” President Johnson also said: “Should we defeat every enemy, should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation.”
As Dr. King spoke to us at the end of the exhilarating Selma to Montgomery March, he too reminded us that we weren’t done: “Let us therefore continue our triumphant march to the realization of the American dream. Let us march on segregated housing until every ghetto or social and economic depression dissolves, and Negroes and whites live side by side in decent, safe, and sanitary housing. Let us march on segregated schools until every vestige of segregated and inferior education becomes a thing of the past . . . Let us march on poverty until no American parent has to skip a meal so that their children may eat . . . Let us march on ballot boxes until we send to our city councils, state legislatures, and the United States Congress men who will not fear to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God.”
Fifty-five years later this is a message we still urgently need to hear. We have not lived up to President Johnson’s American promise. We have not realized Dr. King’s American dream. Instead of making sure no child’s hopes will be denied in America because of color, race, religion, or place of birth, those same categories are being used in new ways to divide us. Racial inequities in schools, housing, and most other measures still loom large. Voting rights remain under attack and voting rights protections, including those created in the 1965 Voting Rights Act, are being weakened, not strengthened. Shamefully, about one in six children in America today lives in poverty. And in this election year we have a desperate need to march to the ballot box and demand leaders—women and men—who will not fear to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with their God. As John Lewis says we must continue to keep the faith, keep our eyes on the prize, and vote like we never, ever voted before to redeem our nation’s soul.