Driving south on 95 from Maine to Boston on Monday afternoon (not writing this as I drive), scanning the lower end of the FM radio dial, I find the Portland-based affiliate of National Public Radio (NPR) to catch the late-afternoon program “Talk of the Nation,” and am quickly rewarded for my efforts with a remarkable story recounting the watershed civil rights event that began 45 years ago as a peaceful march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. In a matter of moments that event would become memorialized in the history of the movement as Bloody Sunday. Alabama state troopers, under orders by then-Governor George Wallace, not only halted the peaceful march but beat marchers relentlessly with nightsticks and ignited a nascent struggle into a full-blown movement.
Among those beaten and hospitalized in the attack was John Lewis of Georgia, an emerging figure in the civil rights movement, who suffered a concussion in the attack. Now (and seemingly forever) a congressman from Georgia, Lewis stands not so much as a witness to history but as one of its critical shapers. At 70, he has long outlived the central figures of the non-violence movement — Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy — and more radical figures like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael. And he has lived long enough to witness the historic election of Barack Obama as the first African-American to become president of the United States.
Lewis did not possess the larger-than-life persona of his contemporaries, but his presence on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama on March 7, 1965, where the bloody assault occurred, and his continued service in the United States Congress, is certainly testimony to a life well lived and a reputation that has endured through nearly five decades of revolution, unrest and near anarchy.