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John Lewis and Selma in Fresno

By Hannah Brandt

Congressional Representative and civil rights leader John Lewis (D–Ga.) was a guest at the Warnors Theatre in downtown Fresno on Aug. 19. A discussion with Lewis’ Central Valley colleague, Rep. Jim Costa (D–Ca.) and Fresno City Council Member Oliver Baines III followed the screening of Selma, the critically acclaimed film profiling the historical 1965 march on Selma, Ala. for voting rights. It was there, on the Edmund Pettis Bridge, that Lewis was beaten by police. The Warnors Theatre event was geared toward high school and college students. Large groups from schools throughout the Fresno area made up most of the audience.

At the March on Washington in 1963, Lewis was a student then himself at Fisk University. He was a pivotal figure in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) working extensively with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and the Freedom Riders. Students in the audience gasped during the film at the scenes of the National Guard horsewhipping peaceful protesters on a bridge named after a Confederate soldier.

Selma vividly displays the devastation of racism in its many forms. It is visually shocking and forces the audience to confront the history many avoid. Because the movie came out several months ago, some of the students might have already seen the film. Therefore, it could have had less impact than upon first viewing it.

In the discussion, Costa discussed Lewis’ group, Faith in Politics, which takes a group of policy makers and re-creates the civil rights movement during the years 1964–1965. Costa and Baines participated with other civil rights leaders for three days this year for the anniversary of the march on Selma. It was this experience and the collaboration with Costa in the House of Representatives that prompted Lewis to visit Fresno.

Lewis said he was pleased to be in the beautiful theater. It would have seemed impossible as a boy from rural Alabama to get to travel to a city in California. He met Rosa Parks at age 17 in 1957 and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1958. He got involved in the sit-ins, the Freedom Rides and the Voting Rights Act drives. “My parents, my teachers, all the African American adults in my life were not allowed to vote.”

“I’ve seen Selma six times and I’ve cried every time,” said Lewis. “I was in Birmingham, Ala., outside the church where the four little girls were burned to death, the first scene in the movie.” When they began to cross the bridge in Selma, Lewis looked down and became aware of the water surrounding them. Keeping in mind the violent reaction of law enforcement to protesters throughout the South, the possibility of falling into the water was real. A fellow protester asked if he knew how to swim. He did not.

Baines asked how accurate the film is. Lewis responded that “it captures the essence of what happened. I thought I would die on that bridge. I was clubbed in the head, covered in blood. I was dizzy, faint and felt like I was dying. But he made it from Selma to Montgomery and got the Voting Rights Act. Something kept me here.”

“I was in that transition from child to teen to adult, that loss of innocence about the way the world works,” Baines remarked. Costa was living as a young White man in the Central Valley. He watched Bloody Sunday on television. “I saw the National Guard on horses trampling, whipping, bludgeoning peaceful protesters…‘Doesn’t everyone have the right to vote, Mom?’ I asked. It was innocence lost to find out that everyone did not. The lightbulb went off regarding the reality of inequality. Rep. Lewis helped make it reality. I didn’t realize I was seeing a future colleague being beaten in front of me.”

Lewis recalled wearing a backpack filled with two books, an apple, an orange and a toothbrush in case he was arrested on the Edmund Pettis Bridge. The first time he had been arrested was during the sit-ins where students protesting segregation were spit on and had cigarettes put out in their hair. Four hundred protesters went to the state penitentiary due to the Freedom Rides. He mentioned that arrests were used to intimidate and fragment the movement.

For students who might have been arrested themselves today as part of the Black Lives Matter movement or just walking while Black or Brown, it might have sounded tone deaf to characterize this phenomenon as solely in the past. Saying “the only way young people today will see ‘Colored Only’ signs are in a book, museum or film,” while true, fails to recognize the real impact of continued structural racism.

Lewis acknowledged the attack on the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court decision to not reauthorize the law. “We need protection. We must not take the right to vote for granted. It is part of democracy to be frustrated.” He began to get tone deaf again by putting the responsibility on the voters rather than calling out the institutional tactics to prevent people from voting. Baines pushed back on that. He brought up the 31 states enacting voter suppression.

The policy maker admitted that “the [2013] Supreme Court decision was a dagger in the heart of the Voting Rights Act. I wanted to cry when I heard. The vote is powerful, almost sacred. Why are people trying to keep some citizens from voting? All of us must have a place at the table. We have to use social media and every tool we have.”

Lewis made note of the women of the movement: Rosa Parks, Ella Baker and Diane Nash. “It wasn’t Dr. King’s idea to boycott the bus system. That was a female professor. All of us can do something. When you see something not right, not fair, you must do something. There are always forces that want to keep us from being free.” Lewis pointed out that it was women in apartheid South Africa holding signs that said, “One Man, One Vote,” who sparked the battle cry of the 1960s civil rights movement.

Expanding his message to include the mistreatment of immigrants. “We should not be afraid of immigration, we must embrace it. We must move forward, not go backward. Voting must be simple, open and accessible. We must not allow new versions of the poll tax, literacy tests, forcing people to show identification, close polls early or prevent it on weekends.”

It was fitting that Lewis emphasized the film’s controversially honest inclusion of President Lyndon B. Johnson saying “Make me do it.” “He did say that,” according to Lewis. “He did say he needed to be forced to sign the Voting Rights Act.” Many in the audience feel the same way today. To get real change on institutional racism, police brutality and economic inequality, those in power must be forced to act.

There continues to be too much incentive for privileged policy makers on both sides of the aisle to preserve the status quo. It would behoove even those in power who participated in past actions to achieve civil rights to keep in mind the ways in which they might benefit from various forms of inequality today.

*****

Hannah Brandt is the editor of the Community Alliance newspaper. Contact her at editor@fresnoalliance.com, @FresnoAlliance on Twitter and Instagram, or Community Alliance Newspaper on Facebook.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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