Lawmakers Travel to Remember Civil Rights History

Posted March 5, 2003 at 3:39pm

Thirty-eight years ago, when civil rights activist John Lewis attempted to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., saying the reception he received dimly reflected on the state of racial equality in America would have been a major understatement.

“I was hit in the head by a state trooper with a night stick. I had a concussion on the bridge and I was hospitalized for three days in Selma,” recalled the nine-term Democratic Representative from Georgia.

This weekend as part of the Faith and Politics Institute’s Congressional civil rights pilgrimage, Lewis will return to that spot along with more than two dozen of his fellow lawmakers to commemorate a watershed moment in U.S. history — where on March 7, 1965, 600 pro-black voting rights marchers en route to Montgomery were brutally beaten back by law enforcement officers on what has become known as “Bloody Sunday.”

The sojourn — which in addition to Members of Congress will include staffers and a variety of guests — will be led by Reps. Amo Houghton (R-N.Y.) and Lewis and hosted by Alabama Reps. Spencer Bachus (R) and Artur Davis (D).

In many ways, first-term Rep. Davis — a black 35-year-old Harvard-educated attorney — is a direct beneficiary of the battles Lewis’ generation of black leaders engaged in nearly 40 years ago.

“Frankly, the struggles that we face pale in comparison to the enormous obstacles that were thrown at John Lewis’ generation,” Davis observed.

“All the other opportunities I’ve had — from education to career opportunities — are a function of a fairer and more equal America [and are] a direct product of the civil rights movement.

“There would literally not be a 7th Congressional district without the Voting Rights Act,” the West Montgomery, Ala., native added.

Still, Davis sees the common thread of inclusion and expanding opportunity running through the political efforts of both him and Lewis.

“Inclusion in 1963, 1965 meant voting rights for African-Americans. It meant eliminating legal forms of segregation in the country. Inclusion means today equitable funding for school districts, access to affordable health care, economic development in parts of rural America such as my district. The struggle has taken on a slightly different character … [but] I view my work in Congress as a very logical extension of the work John Lewis started in the 1960s,” he said.

This year’s three-day trip will kick off Friday in Montgomery with a tour of the Rosa Parks Library & Museum, continue on to Birmingham on Saturday for a stop at the Kelly Ingram Park and the 16th Street Baptist Church, and conclude on Sunday in Selma with a worship service at Brown Chapel and a re-enactment of the 1965 voting rights march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

While the pilgrimage is billed as a bipartisan event, in reality it has always attracted more Democrats than Republicans. This year only six of the 29 Members scheduled to attend claim the GOP mantle.

“I’m hoping by participating this year to encourage more of my Republican colleagues to take the time,” said Rep. Phil English (R-Pa.), noting that northern Republicans were once as active as Democrats when it came to addressing civil rights issues.

“I just don’t understand it … it’s inexplicable to me,” added former GOP vice presidential nominee and professional quarterback Jack Kemp. “Our party was the party of civil rights, and I can’t imagine people not wanting to take an opportunity to see these historic sites.”

Kemp, who will attend the pilgrimage, said he still remembers a 1957 trip to segregationist-era Birmingham when his black Detroit Lions teammate, fullback John Henry Johnson, wasn’t allowed to stay at the same hotel as the white players.

In the wake of comments made in December by Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) at a birthday party for retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) — where he stated the nation would have been better off if Thurmond, then running on a segregationist ticket, had been elected president — Lewis publicly invited Lott to attend this weekend’s events on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He reiterated the invitation to the former Majority Leader in a private meeting in February.

Last week, it was reported that the Mississippi Senator would not attend the pilgrimage. When reached for comment, Lott said his decision was due to a scheduling conflict.

“Maybe some other time we could do some other event. It’s just a scheduling conflict.

“The last two months — I don’t know why — my schedule’s been busier than when I was leader,” Lott said.

Other Senators, however, have chosen to attend. For the first time, the event — which in the past has attracted President Bill Clinton — will also include two members of the world’s most exclusive club: Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.).

“When I heard that no Senator had made the trip I said I’m going to do that,” asserted Durbin, noting that he had been forced to miss the original Selma-to-Montgomery march when he was a college student because he couldn’t get the day off from work.

For other Members such as Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), the pilgrimage holds added significance this year at a time of national uncertainty and international conflict.

“At this time that we [as Americans] are facing enemies from abroad, from terrorism and other things, it’s the time when we need to be more unified than ever. I hope it will go a long ways to help bring about that kind of unity,” he said.

Paul Kane contributed to this report.