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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.

The civil rights leaders, in effect, saved Southern whites from their worst angels. By not resorting to violence in the face of violence, he says, they prevented the country from entering a cycle of bloodshed like those that have scarred countries like Kosovo or Afghanistan. “Thank God for Martin Luther King for what he did for the white people of Alabama,” Bachus said.

Bachus ends his testament with another, a rare admission from a lawmaker, that things aren’t always black and white.

“We have challenges ahead,” he tells the crowd, referring to the issues lawmakers face back in Washington. “And there is not a day where I don’t feel like my faith is being pushed one way or another.”

Ordinary Places, Extraordinary People

First Baptist Church, Montgomery

It is Rep. Mike Quigley’s first time on the Alabama trip. The Illinois Democrat isn’t sure what he’s looking for here, and he’s in a reflective mood.

Quigley is standing in the back of the First Baptist Church, pressing his palms into the back of a wooden pew and looking at the pulpit. This is where Lewis once spent the night hiding from a mob outside during an early Freedom Ride. The places Quigley has visited this weekend, he says, seem smaller than he had imagined, perhaps because they loom so large in history.

“They look like everyday places, which they are,” Quigley says. “They’ve just been made extraordinary by extraordinary people.”

And he’s right; the churches on the tour are working churches where regular people attend services, choir practices and Sunday school. They are modest affairs. The basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where a bomb intended to intimidate protesters killed four girls in 1963, looks like any other church basement. It has linoleum tile floors and bulletin boards and a poster of the Lord’s Prayer taped to the wall. It smells like disinfectant.

Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a pastor and where the city’s famous bus boycotts were organized in the wake of Rosa Parks’ arrest, has battered pews and simple stained glass panels. And the Edmund Pettus Bridge is a drab steel and concrete structure, its iconic lettering bleeding rust stains down the metal edifice.

“You think of churches in Rome and Poland, and they’re grand and impressive. ... But these places,” Quigley says, “are special in their own way.”

A Bridge to Somewhere

Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma

In the now-famous grainy footage of what happened on the Pettus Bridge in 1965, Lewis appears as a serious young man in a light-colored trench coat carrying a small backpack. He leads a column of somber protesters onto the bridge, where he meets a trooper with a bullhorn. Within moments, troopers advance on the marchers, clubs swinging.

That incident led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in August of that year. But on Sunday, the trip across the bridge doesn’t feel like a history lesson.

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