In 1965, John Lewis and hundreds of other civil rights advocates were met with violence on the bridge as they planned to march for voting rights

By Claudia Harmata
July 26, 2020 02:20 PM
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The body of the late Rep. John Lewis crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Sunday in Selma, Alabama, one last time during an event called "The Final Crossing" as part of the ongoing memorial services honoring the 80-year-old civil rights icon.

Armed Forces Body Bearers placed the late Georgia congressman onto a horse-drawn caisson to take him across the bridge from Selma to Montgomery.

"His final march, that final crossing, so different than the first, speaks to the legacy that he leaves behind and the lives that he changed,” Rep. Terri Sewell said on Sunday, according to NBC. "It’s poetic justice that this time, Alabama state troopers will see John to his safety. "

On March 7, 1965, Lewis — then just 25 years old — led hundreds of other civil rights advocates in what was supposed to be a peaceful march for African American voting rights in Alabama. The activists were met with violence on the infamous bridge, and the day became known as “Bloody Sunday.”

"We're marching today to dramatize to the nation, dramatize to the world the hundreds and thousands of Negro citizens of Alabama that are denied the right to vote," Lewis said that day, as heard in archived recordings shared by NPR. "We intend to march to Montgomery to present said grievance to Governor George C. Wallace."

Lewis suffered a fractured skull from the brutality that day and had to be hospitalized. He once said, "I thought I was going to die on this bridge," when recalling the march.

Ava DuVernay, who directed the 2014 movie Selma about the 1965 violence in the fight for suffrage, shared Lewis' words on her Instagram Sunday. "'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,' Congressman John Lewis said in an emotional speech at the apex of the bridge. 'We must go out and vote like we never, ever voted before.'"

The ensuing media coverage of the beatings and violence of the infamous day ultimately pressured Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits racial discrimination in voting.

Bernice King, daughter of the late Martin Luther King Jr., shared the powerful image of Lewis' casket crossing the bridge on Sunday, thanking him for his work in the civil rights movement.

"What a moment to remember. What a courageous journey in life. What a powerful path in death. We will miss you, but we’re grateful. For all of your 'good trouble'... Thank you. #JohnLewis," she shared on Twitter. 

On Saturday, Lewis was honored at a memorial service in his hometown of Troy, Alabama. The memorial service, entitled "The Boy From Troy," came nearly a week after the longtime congressman's passing. He was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer in December 2019.

Lewis' body was brought from an Atlanta funeral home to Troy University in his hometown, where he was born to sharecroppers in 1940, NBC News reported.

Troy Mayor Jason Reeves said that Lewis had "come home" and celebrated the late politician for being the "conscience of Congress" and having "otherworldly courage."

Memorials for Lewis will continue over the next several days in various cities before Lewis is interred at the South View Cemetery in Atlanta on Thursday.

Lewis dedicated his life to protecting human rights and was at the forefront of the civil rights movement. In 1963, he was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

In 1986, Lewis was elected to Congress, where he continued to serve as U.S. Representative of Georgia's Fifth Congressional District. During his time in office, Lewis advocated for healthcare reform, improvements in education and the fight against poverty. He also oversaw multiple renewals of the Voting Rights Act.

On Monday, Lewis' body will lie in state at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.