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Freedom Marching Through History

Kevin Glackmeyer/AP
Rep. John Lewis walks arm in arm with (from left) House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Assistant Leader James Clyburn as the Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr. follows across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on Sunday, the 46th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when Lewis was beaten during civil rights protests.

SELMA, Ala. — Rep. John Lewis is dancing. It’s Sunday, and the Georgia Democrat is on a cold and windy sidewalk surrounded by a group of his Congressional colleagues there for a re-enactment of his 1965 march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge — the protest known as Bloody Sunday.

In a few minutes, Lewis will march and sing and pray. But right now, on the street leading to the bridge in downtown Selma, he wants to dance. A group of young people lining the march route are moving in unison to a hip-hop beat, and their enthusiasm inspires Lewis to break from his spot at the front of the Congressional delegation and join in.

He throws his hands in the air and wiggles his hips. The kids screech in delight.

Lewis, 71, looks spry, and later, when he speaks on the bridge and recalls what happened to him there 46 years ago, when protesters marching for voting rights were beaten, gassed and turned away by state troopers, his steady voice booms.

He’s among a dwindling number of those who can tell firsthand the story of the civil rights movement, the ones who can recount not only the dates of the marches and the names of the protestors, but also what the sting of a water hose or a billy club to the head felt like.

That is one of the reasons Members of Congress have joined Lewis for his 11th annual trip to Alabama to revisit the very churches and streets where history was made. Sixteen Members have accompanied Lewis this year on the three-day tour, organized by the Faith & Politics Institute. Many have brought their children and grandchildren.

They’ve come to hear civil rights veteran Dorothy Cotton tell the stories of her days teaching citizenship classes to blacks who didn’t understand that they had the right to vote. They’ve come to hear Bernard Lafayette share his tales of organizing bus boycotts and Freedom Rides.

They’ve come to stand in the church in Birmingham where a bomb killed four little girls in 1963, and to see Lewis point to a choir bench in a church in Montgomery where he hid from an angry mob one night in 1961.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen is traveling with his teenage son, Alex, a paler blond and thinner version of his father. “That’s the reason I wanted to bring him,” the Maryland Democrat says. “He should see this while he can. It’s an experience you want to savor while you can.”

A Congressman’s Sermon

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